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Archive for Sunday, November 21, 2004

Stem-cell inertia may hinder state’s leadership role

Kansas likely to trail Calif., others in bioscience research

November 21, 2004

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— California and other states are upping the ante in the high-stakes game of stem-cell research, but Kansas appears ready to stand pat.

That's a bad move, according to Mary Faith Marshall of the Kansas University Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan.

"I'm not hopeful," said Marshall, who is director of the Institute for Bioethics Law and Policy at the Medical Center.

Earlier this month, voters in California favored by nearly 60 percent the use of $3 billion in public funds for stem-cell research.

Last week, partially in reaction to the California "gold rush," Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle announced plans to invest nearly $750 million to boost an already leading stem-cell program in that state.

"If the goal is to position Kansas as one of the premier bioscience venues in the country, that's not going to happen without robust stem-cell research," Marshall said.

But officials shepherding Kansas' fledgling bioscience effort say while the vote in California is worth noting, they aren't worried about Kansas' ability to attract more than its share of research dollars and the accompanying economic development.

"Is this going to stop Kansas in its tracks in the life sciences? No," said Richard Seline, a consultant hired by the state to help write a strategic plan for bioscience in the state. "Kansas is quite competitive in a number of areas."

Cashing in on research

The promise of stem-cell research has led a number of states, including Kansas, to pursue research dollars flowing into life science experimentation.

Earlier this year, the Kansas Legislature approved legislation that would reinvest $500 million in tax revenue from bioscience companies over the next decade back into the bioscience industry. Supporters say the effort will help build new research facilities, lure leading scholars and produce cutting-edge medicines and products.

But Kansas now is caught in the middle of the controversy over using embryonic stem cells.

Embryonic stem cells have the ability to grow into almost any type of human cell, leading many scientists to think the cells could be used to repair crippling injuries and treat a wide range of diseases, including diabetes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

But because the stem cells are taken from several-days-old embryos, which are destroyed when the stem cells are extracted, some people, including President Bush, say the process is immoral because it is destroying human life.

Golden state rebuke

Bush's policy prohibits federal funds from being used on new lines of embryonic stem cells. Kansas' policy on using tax funds under the state initiative is the same, officials say.

Many supporters of the president's policy say that not only does embryonic stem-cell research destroy life, it is unproven as a cure or treatment for any disease and its potential is over-hyped.

But California voters, in a repudiation of the Bush position, approved a ballot proposition that would allow the use of state-backed bonds for embryonic stem-cell research. Since passage, the state's academic and economic powerhouses have been gearing up for vast expansion in research.

Two of the biggest donors to the California initiative were philanthropists Jim and Virginia Stowers, founders of the Kansas City, Mo.-based Stowers Institute for Medical Research.

The Stowerses contributed $1 million to passage of the California proposition in a challenge that raised an additional $4 million.

When making the donation, Jim Stowers said, "Our goal is simple: To make the United States a leading center of stem-cell research. And we will applaud any effort, anywhere, that seeks to bring us closer to this vision."

The couple also emphasized that their interest in the California ballot initiative wouldn't detract from their commitment to future growth of biomedical research at the Stowers Institute.

"The Greater Kansas City area is home for us, and we are very optimistic that both Missouri and Kansas will encourage biomedical research institutions in their jurisdictions to be international leaders in stem-cell research toward the great hope and great promise it offers for humankind," Jim Stowers said.

So far that hasn't happened. In fact, a state lawmaker in Missouri has introduced legislation that would make the procedure for creating embryonic stem cells a felony.

Stowers Institute officials have said if such a bill became law, the research institute wouldn't expand in the Kansas City area.

KU's Marshall said more restrictions put on how scientists can conduct research would make it less likely to attract and retain top scientists.

"That will mean there will be academic inbreeding, and inbreeding is death to the scientific endeavor," she said.

Other opportunities

But Kansas officials say the controversy over embryonic stem-cell research won't slow their efforts in building bioscience research.

State Rep. Kenny Wilk, R-Lansing, who was a primary author of the bioscience legislation, said embryonic stem-cell research is a small part of the life sciences field.

"It's important for people to understand that embryonic stem-cell research is just one facet of a very broad scope of research," he said.

Scientists in Kansas are conducting groundbreaking research involving plant and animal cells, and with umbilical cords, he said.

Stephen O'Connor, chief executive officer of the biotech firm Nanostream in Pasadena, Calif., said that while California often was viewed as being on the leading edge of public policy, the debate over embryonic stem cells shouldn't delay Kansas' bioscience development.

"There are all kinds of things going on to help in the future of medicine," said O'Connor, who is a native of Leavenworth and serves on a board helping Kansas' bioscience development.

Clay Blair, a businessman and philanthropist chairman of that board, said Kansas shouldn't worry about what is going on in California.

"We need to focus on our strengths, the assets we have in existing companies and the strengths in our academic institutions," Blair said. "We're just starting to inventory our strengths as a Kansas bioscience authority. Our academic institutions have strengths they probably don't even realize that they have."

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