Cell Block

Missouri scientists fear embryonic research may remain embryonic

"If Missouri became a place that was not friendly to science, where you can't do cutting-edge research, then the best and the brightest just aren't going to come here," says Donn Rubin, executive director of the Coalition for Plant and Life Sciences and chairman of the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures.

"Investors aren't going to want to come here. Life-sciences companies and investors are going to go to California, or Boston — or even Illinois. We're going to lose all those opportunities."

William Neaves, president and CEO of Kansas City's Stowers Institute, says his organization has already suffered fallout from the political battle over stem-cell research.

"For more than two years, the Stowers Institute has been trying to recruit leading scientists in the field of somatic cell nuclear transfer using human cells," writes Neaves in an e-mail. "Unfortunately, the threat of criminalization has made it impossible for us to convince these scientists to consider moving to Missouri."

Founded by Jim and Virginia Stowers, their eponymous Institute currently has a $2 billion endowment, making it the second-largest such endowment in the country. Opened in 2000, the 600,000-square-foot facility is located on a ten-acre campus in the heart of Kansas City. When fully occupied, the facility will employ 600 people. Importantly, Neaves says, the Institute is also funded to expand by another 600,000-square-foot facility each decade in perpetuity.

"A second facility in Kansas City would entail a $300 million construction project that would yield another 600 permanent jobs upon completion," Neaves explains. "But future expansions of the Institute will only be built in a jurisdiction that welcomes research with early stem cells."

Closer to home, scientists at Washington University say that the pending threat to criminalize embryonic stem-cell research threatens their recruiting abilities in all areas of science.

"Stem-cell research is not an isolated area of research; it's a tool just like any other area of research," contends Washington University's Teitelbaum. "We are the most collaborative institution I know, and if I've had any success as a scientist it is not because of me, it is because of my colleagues who have these specific areas of expertise."

Teitelbaum adds that if the state passes legislation restricting embryonic stem-cell research, all Washington University scientists will be denied a critical area of research, prompting bright young scientists across all disciplines to settle elsewhere.

"Our university in toto ranks in the top ten, but all of this depends upon our ability to recruit the best faculty," says Teitelbaum, a genetics researcher credited with one of the first major breakthroughs in adult stem-cell therapy. "If you can't recruit, you can't remain competitive. This is not just rumor: I know for a fact that these issues are brought up presently by potential recruits. They want to know if they're going to be restricted in what they do if they come here."

For Senator Matt Bartle, however, the potential of life-saving cures, the loss of area jobs and university prestige pale in comparison to what he sees as his duty to protect the unborn.

"This is very simply big business trying to push through a constitutional provision that will allow them to do whatever they please," says Bartle. "It's the same old tired argument: Look at how much money we can make. Well, you know what? If we were to undertake experiments on our prison population that might lead to medical advances, it might lead to jobs in the state of Missouri, but does that justify it? No."

Back at the Nidus Center, Divergence's Derek Rapp points to a microscope in his company's sunny, beaker-filled laboratory. At 10x magnification, the C. elegans roundworm is an undulating s-curve of translucent grace. A close genetic match of their parasitic cousins, C. elegans allow researchers to easily identify target genes in their crop-destroying relatives. And though Divergence does not conduct stem-cell research (there are only a handful of researchers in the state currently studying human embryonic stem cells), the issue is vitally important to the company.

"We've been able to assemble a really strong team here," he says. "Having the presence of Monsanto, the Danforth Plant Science Center and Washington University really helps us do the work that we do.

"But if we start to see an abandonment of science on the part of the state, and that leads to people abandoning the state to do their research, then we'd have to think twice about staying here."

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