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Considering Ballot Question to Protect Stem Cell Research

By Kelley Weiss

Kansas City, MO – Voters going to the polls next week will decide whether to pass an initiative to protect stem cell research in Missouri. It's of special importance to Kansas City, which has the Stowers Institute, a well-funded life science research center poised to work to develop cures for degenerative diseases if allowed to use embryonic stem cells. The proposed constitutional amendment is causing ethical debates over cloning and when life begins. KCUR's Kelley Weiss reports on how the amendment stacks up with other states and how it would impact Missouri.

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Jim and Virginia Stowers created combined endowments of almost $2 billion dollars to fund the basic science research center, The Stowers Institute for Medical Research. They're hopes were for researchers at the state-of-the-art facility spanning across 10 acres of land near the Plaza to conduct ground breaking research. This includes using embryonic stem cells to find cures for degenerative diseases like Parkinson's, diabetes and Alzheimer's.

But, some state legislators have tried to restrict this type of research claiming it will lead to human cloning. At a recent demonstration in front of the Stowers Institute Dr. Karladine Graves rallied the crowd of about 200 people.

Karladine Graves: "Dolly the sheep was with somatic cell nuclear transfer. You know what they must think we're a bunch of dumb sheep."

It's exactly this uproar that supporters of Amendment 2 are hoping to combat. In fact, they wrote the measure to expressly ban human cloning or attempted cloning. The ballot proposal is simply protecting Missouri researchers to conduct federally approved stem cell research.

Mark Frankel: "I consider it to be a very conservative step to do what Missouri is doing."

Mark Frankel, with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says Missouri's constitutional amendment falls in the middle of what other states are doing. Californian voters passed a $3 billion initiative to support stem cell research while Missouri's measure does not mandate any state funding. In Arkansas researchers can face felony charges for working with embryonic stem cells.

Frankel says after the Bush Administration restricted the use of embryonic stem cells in 2001 federal dollars cannot be used for research using embryos. He says Missouri is in a good position to move ahead because of the privately funded Stowers Institute in Kansas City - which holds the world's second largest endowment for biomedical research.

At the Stowers Institute, CEO, Bill Neaves, says they're eager to start embryonic stem cell research. But, he says they won't until they know the state won't interfere.

Tim Geary: "We already have some rooms set up for mouse stem cell work, and things like that, we're not doing any human stem cell work currently, but we are doing mouse and fly and things like that ."

That's Tim Geary, director of research operations at Stowers. He says these labs are ready for embryonic stem cell work with room to expand research over time.

Although, Neaves says if Missouri does not pass the amendment and if legislators continue to try and restrict stem cell research it will limit the state's ability to find cures.

Bill Neaves: "The issue for us is whether Missouri can be a player in the global quest to find cures for devastating degenerative diseases through stem cell research involving nuclear transfer."

But, Missouri Senator Matt Bartle doesn't buy it.

Matt Bartle: "I think the argument that Missouri will fall behind if it doesn't pass Amendment 2 is hogwash."

Bartle has proposed legislation several times to ban the use of embryos for stem cell research. He proposed a Cloning Ban Bill two years ago but he says it was filibustered on the senate floor.

Matt Bartle: "There will be no ability for the legislature to forbid them from using artificial wombs to develop human embryos into fetuses, into babies and that's what's really, really troubling."

But, again supporters of the amendment say the measure specifically prohibits cloned cells from being developed into human beings. The argument really boils down to when life begins. And, this is creating an ethical divide between voters over the stem-cell initiative.

Opponents maintain that destroying a group of cells, which under ideal circumstances would become a fetus, constitutes murder. Supporters believe there is a fundamental difference between cells in a Petri dish, and a human being and that these cells should be used to do research that promises to cure degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

If Missouri voters approve Amendment 2 it will be added to the state constitution and protect research allowed by federal law from being criminalized by the state General Assembly. If they don't Senator Bartle says he promises to lead the charge again next year to ban embryonic stem-cell research in Missouri.

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