Kansas University scientists whose research involves human stem cells crossed their fingers Thursday, hoping that a bill boosting federal support of embryonic stem cell research could survive.
"I get so many e-mails from people who have sick children, who have sick mothers or fathers," said Kathy Mitchell, KU assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology. "They're asking for help. There are so many people who want this help, who are desperate."
Mitchell is among a handful of KU researchers, on KU's Lawrence campus and at Kansas University Medical Center, working with human stem cells.
Though opponents of embryonic stem cell research say it is immoral because it destroys human life, KU researchers say it can lead to new treatments and save lives.
Mitchell said she receives many e-mails because many people don't know where else to turn to battle the ailments they or their loved ones face.
"They find me on the Internet and they're desperate," she said. "It's really quite heartbreaking."
Mitchell's research does not involve embryonic stem cells, but human umbilical cord matrix cells, taken from umbilical cords that otherwise would be thrown away. Her research ultimately could lead to treatments for many problems, including osteoarthritis and acute renal failure.
Mitchell said it's not just embryonic stem cells that require focus, but all stem cell research needs to be fully funded.
"Just like there's not just one drug that treats every disease ... we'll find that there are different types of stem cells that work better for different types of diseases," she said.
At KUMC, researcher Kenneth Peterson uses approved human embryonic stem cells to study the molecular basis for sickle cell disease and beta thalassemia, an inherited blood disorder.
Peterson, associate professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology, said the proposed legislation is necessary because it would open up federally funded research to new stem cell lines beyond those now available to federally funded researchers. He said many of the lines currently approved are unusable for possible therapeutics.
"The ultimate goal that we all have is to cure disease using these stem cells," he said. "When we're restricted to only a few approved lines, our ability to study something in more of a true setting ... is compromised."
Under the existing policy, federal funds may be used to study only those stem cells taken from embryos destroyed by Aug. 9, 2001 - or about 21 of the nearly 400 stem cell colonies created since 1998. The House-based bill would expand that pool of available cells to include those from any of the thousands of embryos that are discarded by fertility clinics each year.