Subtle approach made against stem cell work

BY KIT WAGAR

After waging a pitched battle last year to ban many types of stem cell research, opponents of such science are conducting a more subtle campaign. Led by Republican Rep. Jim Lembke of south St. Louis County, opponents this year have quietly attempted to thwart such research by sprinkling restrictions on scientists throughout the state legal code.

They have tried with some success to place restrictions into the state budget, into laws regarding government buying of private property and into the spending of proceeds from the partial sale of the state’s student loan agency.

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Such restrictions would prevent scientists who receive state money or work in laboratories built with state money from conducting such research. The prohibitions would apply whether the stem cells were taken from clusters left over from fertility treatments or created artificially in a lab through a process called therapeutic cloning.

The approach is far different than last year, when opponents pushed a ban on all efforts to grow stem cells in the lab. The tactics have changed for two reasons: Last year’s effort to impose a ban was blocked by Sen. Chris Koster’s dramatic stand in the laboratory door. And this year, supporters of such a ban have been stymied by the petition drive to put the issue on the November ballot.

Most state lawmakers are glad to let voters decide whether to allow Missouri scientists to conduct all stem cell research permitted by federal law. But the key issue remains the same: Does research on early — also called embryonic — stem cells destroy human life or is it a harmless laboratory procedure that holds the potential to cure a host of chronic diseases?

The latest controversy arose when Lembke offered a bill to direct grants from Missouri’s tobacco settlement into certain kinds of research, but specifically excluding research on early stem cells. The debate that followed showed just how hardened the positions on both sides have become.

Rep. Sam Page, a Creve Coeur Democrat, and Rep. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican, spoke about the potential of early stem cells to cure chronic diseases.

“Opponents of stem cell research are a group that is very idealistic and locked into a belief that cells in a lab dish are full-fledged persons and that their destruction is murder,” Schaaf said. “I don’t believe that.”

The debate over the morality of cloning cells ended with the Republican-dominated House voting against a ban on research seeking ways to try to give birth to a cloned human.

“‘No implantation’ is the other side’s compromise,” Lembke said. “They say it solves the problem. But that would require us to succumb to their assertion that the sanctity of life is based purely on location. Our point is that therapeutic cloning involves destruction of life before implantation.”

The biggest target of opponents is a process known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, sometimes called therapeutic cloning. In SCNT, the nucleus of an egg cell is removed and replaced with the nucleus of a body cell. The cell eventually will grow into a ball of cells, including the early stem cells that have the potential to become every cell of the body. Scientists hope the cells can lead to cures for diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, spinal injuries and a wide variety of other ailments.

Opponents, however, say the process creates a microscopic human being who is a clone of the person who donated the nucleus. Removal of the stem cells kills a child, they say.

Lembke’s bill would direct $3 million to $4 million a year toward research on the body’s regenerative cells, often called adult stem cells. But the bill, he said, was mainly intended to send a message.

“The public thinks a small group of legislators in Jefferson City are trying to derail all science and all stem cell research,” Lembke said. “We’re against SCNT and embryonic stem cell research. We’re not against all stem cell research.”

Page and Schaaf said they viewed Lembke’s bill as a way to confuse the public and make people think that adult regenerative cells have the same potential as early stem cells.

“Opponents claim the moral high ground based on their religious beliefs,” Page said. “But if they don’t like SCNT, then they don’t have to participate in it or the cures that are found.”

Lembke said the issue has no middle ground.

“The two sides can’t find a compromise because it would entail the pro-life community to acknowledge that the life continuum starts at a point other than conception,” Lembke said.

The repeated skirmishes over stem cell research are likely to continue, he said, no matter the outcome of this year’s initiative campaign.

“This conveys to voters that this battle is not going away,” Lembke said. “It is still raging among elected representatives.”

Holocaust Education and Awareness Commission

The House voted 151-0 last week to create a commission that would promote the creation of Holocaust education and awareness programs throughout Missouri.

The legislation, which earlier passed the Senate on a 30-1 vote, now goes to Gov. Matt Blunt. Spence Jackson, Blunt’s spokesman, said the governor would sign it.

The commission would encourage understanding of the Holocaust that took the lives of six million European Jews from 1933 to 1945. Through that lens, the commission would seek to discourage bigotry and “deter indifference to crimes against humanity and human suffering wherever they occur.”

“The governor believes the Holocaust was a terrible period in world history, but one that must be understood by future generations as a way to prevent such an atrocity from happening again,” Jackson said.

Kit Wagar is the statehouse correspondent for the Kansas City Star. He can be reached at 816-234-4440 or by sending e-mail to [email protected]