Commentary: Stem cell debates goes on in Don't-Show-Me state

In his lab at the University of Kansas Medical Center, Kenneth Peterson uses embryonic stem cells to study how human cells develop into blood cells.

The cells come from one of the lines that were approved for federal research money during the Bush presidency.

Siding with those who say that human embryos shouldn't be destroyed to extract stem cells for medical research, President George W. Bush restricted federal funding to cell lines already in existence when he took office.

His position defied logic. The embryos in question are products of fertility treatments. If not implanted in a woman's uterus, they are frozen, destroyed or allowed to perish.

Why is it acceptable to sacrifice the tiny organisms to help people conceive children, but not to seek cures for diseases?

President Barack Obama recognized that contradiction this week when he lifted Bush's restriction on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Obama's action has gotten scientists at KU Medical Center thinking about expanding their research to new lines of embryonic stem cells, said Peterson, vice chairman of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

But scientists are wary of moving too fast. They understand that a conservative Legislature in Topeka might be less receptive than the new administration in Washington. "We're keeping a watchful eye, but a hopeful eye," Peterson said.

Though some Kansas lawmakers have proposed limits on stem cell research, the state's approach has been pragmatic. Kansas follows the federal government's lead on what research is allowed.

Missouri is a different story. Opponents of embryonic stem cell research are entrenched in the state and its legislature. Even voter approval of a constitutional amendment protecting science that is allowed by federal law hasn't quelled the resistance.

Scientists at Washington University's School of Medicine in St. Louis are hoping to work with new stem cell lines, said Steven Teitelbaum, a bone biologist there. But he worries that Obama’s order will energize opponents.

"My fear is there will be a concerted effort to overturn Amendment 2," Teitelbaum said, referring to the 2006 amendment that protects stem cell research.

"If that happens, we will be in a worse position than if President Obama has not overturned Bush's restriction. I am convinced that biotechnology companies will shy away from the state."

His concern is well founded. For reasons including the political climate, bioscience companies have preferred Kansas and Illinois to Missouri.

After being thwarted in efforts to ban a form of embryonic stem cell research, opponents have shifted tactics.

A state senator and a citizens group have put forth similar language for a constitutional amendment that would prohibit using state money for at least one type of embryonic stem cell research.

The language is vague enough that researchers fear a ban could prevent universities and institutes from using federal grants to work with embryonic stem cells.

That scenario would be disastrous for higher education and bioscience development.

The good news is that science is finding ways around the controversy. Most important, researchers have found a way to reproduce the elastic qualities of embryonic stem cells by injecting four genes into an ordinary skin cell.

But it was the study of embryonic cells that led to the four-gene method.

In this field of medicine, which seeks to give damaged human cells the capacity to repair themselves, there is only one road to the promised land. And it runs straight through the controversy involving embryos.

Fortunately, Obama is willing to allow scientists to go down that road. It will be a tragedy if state politicians throw up new barricades.

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