Archive for Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Mo. stem cell debate spills into Kan. governor’s race

August 22, 2006


— A debate in Missouri over embryonic stem cell research and human cloning has spilled into Kansas politics.

Abortion opponents in Kansas worry that Missouri voters on Nov. 7 will approve an amendment to their constitution protecting work with embryonic stem cells - and blunt attempts in the Sunflower State to ban research some view as cloning.

Both states hope to lure scientists and build bioscience industries, and the Stowers Institute in Kansas City, Mo., figures prominently in their aspirations. Meanwhile, some legislators in both states want to restrict research deemed morally objectionable.

The issue of what research should be prohibited separates Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and Republican nominee Jim Barnett as Sebelius seeks a second term. Barnett's stance aligns with Kansans for Life, the state's largest anti-abortion group, which views Sebelius as hostile.

"What we're afraid of is what happens if they've won," Mary Kay Culp, Kansans for Life executive director, said of the Missouri vote.

Missouri proposal

The Missouri proposal was placed on the ballot by an initiative petition signed by voters. Putting a proposed amendment on the Kansas ballot can occur only by legislative approval.

Across the nation, Republicans have split over embryonic stem cell research, with some moderates arguing the public hopes to see cures for diseases such as juvenile diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. A recent Gallup poll found Americans considered embryonic stem cell research to be morally acceptable by a 2-to-1 margin.

A look at the cloning debate

In Missouri: Voters decide Nov. 7 whether to add an amendment to the state constitution protecting embryonic stem cell research. In Kansas: Legislators have failed to ban human cloning, an idea GOP gubernatorial nominee Jim Barnett supports. Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius opposes human reproductive cloning but supports medical research with stem cells. No cloning: Some critics of proposed bans on human cloning worry that they'd also prohibit embryonic stem cell research, slowing work on cures for diseases such as juvenile diabetes or Parkinson's. The connection: To get stem cells - which can later develop into a wide variety of specific cell types - researchers create their own embryos so they can harvest the stem cells after a few days, discarding the rest. The process: It's known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, or SCNT. Researchers take a human egg, with 23 chromosomes, and remove its nucleus. Then, they insert a nucleus from a mature cell, with a full 46 chromosomes. The cell then begins dividing, as if it had been fertilized by a sperm. Yes, it's cloning: Critics of SCNT say it's cloning because it creates a human embryo. They note the same process was used to clone a sheep in 1997. No, it's not: Supporters of SCNT say it's not cloning because the product - called a blastocyst by some scientists - is never implanted in a womb and therefore can't develop into a human being. Adult stem cells: There are also "adult" stem cells, though the name is a misnomer, because such cells can come from fetal tissue, the placenta or umbilical cord blood. Debate over value: Some critics of SCNT argue that dozens of potential disease cures are being developed with adult stem cells, while embryonic ones haven't led to such advances. Supporters of SCNT said the advances with adult stem cells are overstated, and, even if they exist, they don't preclude the need for other research.

"It's important that our political leaders start paying attention to those polls," said Ryan Wright, spokesman for the moderate Kansas Traditional Republican Majority.

In Kansas and Missouri, the two sides argue over not only the definition of human cloning but the promise of embryonic stem cell research - both medical and commercial. Culp is especially irritated by arguments that a ban on embryonic stem cell research could hurt economic development.

"Death camps were probably good for economic development in certain towns in Germany," Culp said. "Is that our highest concern here, economic development?"

Research threatened

Supporters of such research contend potential medical advances are the real issue. Cutting off some types of research now will undoubtedly foreclose promising leads in the future, they argue.

In Missouri, the group leading the campaign to protect stem cell research raised more than $16 million through mid-July, including more than $12.2 million from the couple who established the Stowers institute.

"The one thing that might come from the Missouri initiative is a raised awareness of the issue," said Lori Hutfles, executive director of the Kansas Coalition for Lifesaving Cures.

Barnett hasn't raised the issue, saying he prefers to concentrate on issues that don't divide Republicans. GOP voters far outnumber Democrats, making it imperative for Sebelius to attract moderates.

However, Barnett voted this year for an unsuccessful proposal in the Senate to prohibit taxpayer funding of embryonic stem cell research - which supporters described as a cloning ban. Sebelius opposes human reproductive cloning but supports stem cell research needed to find cures, spokeswoman Nicole Corcoran said.

'Think about the science'

Barnett, an Emporia physician, sees the issue as creating human life, only to destroy it later.

"We need to think beyond this issue of economic development," Barnett said. "We need to think about the science."

But Sebelius believes Kansans want medical advances.

"Kansans should not be denied the lifesaving cures this responsible research stands to produce," Corcoran said.

The funding ban Barnett supported was broad enough to cover a process known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, or SCNT, in which the nucleus of an egg, with 23 chromosomes, is replaced with the nucleus of another cell, with the full contingent of 46 chromosomes.

After the cell begins to divide in a laboratory, researchers harvest its stem cells and discard the rest.

Cloned sheep

While it hasn't been used to create a human, such a process was used to clone a sheep in 1997.

"It's very, very well established in medical terminology all over the world that SCNT is cloning," said Richard Chole, a professor of ear, nose and throat medicine at Washington University in St. Louis.

Supporters contend SCNT doesn't represent human cloning because the product isn't implanted in a womb and therefore couldn't develop into a human.

"I've been a born-again Christian for over 48 years," said Bill Neaves, chief executive officer of the Stowers Institute. "I am absolutely confident they are not a person and that they may be morally and ethically used to meet the Biblical mandate to heal the sick."

The debate over embryonic stem cell research and cloning thus boils down to a relatively simple question: Does the growing entity created by SCNT - whether described as an embryo or as a cluster of cells - constitute a human being after a few days?

"There's only one reason why some people adamantly oppose this research and it is because they believe those few cells, or those few cells in a lab dish, are a person, no different than a child with diabetes, a teenager with leukemia or an adult with Parkinson's," Neaves said.

Chole said the product of SCNT is human, even if it is "a very small human."

"What is the status of a five-day-old embryo?" he said. "That's really not a scientific question, but that is THE question."


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