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Big money puts couple in middle of debate

The couple founded the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City. Leaders of the institute have said the Stowerses would build additional research space in another state if the stem cell measure doesn't pass.

Ting Xie does research in February last year on adult stem cells at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City. The institute opened in 2000.

Photo by The Associated Press

By Matthew Franck

St. Louis Post-Dispatch


James and Virginia Stowers' stubborn, and even audacious, $2 billion quest to unlock the mysteries of disease is housed in a glistening steel, slate and glass research complex in the heart of Kansas City.

The couple, who founded American Century mutual funds, have accomplished what many would say is impossible. In less than a decade, they've spent most of their fortune to coax dozens of the world's best researchers away from renowned universities to an unproven venture.

Today, the Stowers Institute for Medical Research and its almost 300 scientists are churning out a steady stream of papers in the finest research journals, putting Kansas City on the map for work on cell division, gene expression and their relation to disease.

In the process, the Stowerses have landed in the middle of Missouri's smoldering political battle about the legality of stem cell research.

The couple have almost single-handedly bankrolled a $16 million campaign to persuade voters to amend the state's constitution to protect the research. At issue is a controversial form of embryonic research that the institute hopes to soon conduct.

Without the Stowerses, some say, the stem cell issue might not even be on the ballot this year.

"We wouldn't be having this conversation right now, at least not in Missouri, " said Jaci Winship, who heads Missourians Against Human Cloning, a group opposed to the stem cell measure.

The Stowerses' influence in the stem cell debate extends beyond their $15 million that's funding a sea of television ads. Also playing into the debate is what might best be described as an economic ultimatum.

For months, leaders of the Stowers Institute have said that the institution would call off a multimillion-dollar expansion unless the stem cell measure prevailed. Instead, the Stowerses would build additional research space in another state, a potential financial blow for Missouri.

Opponents of the stem cell measure have brushed off that claim as a mere threat.

To a degree, the Stowerses themselves have been pulled into the political debate. One Baptist publication refers to their financial backing of the campaign as "clone-to-kill money."

And yet, the Stowerses have been silent throughout the campaign, refusing interviews with reporters. Their spokesman said he saw no reason why they should say anything more before Election Day.

"What would be the point?" asked David Welte, a lawyer from Kansas City who represents the couple. "People are saying very unpleasant things about them, and I just don't see any reason for them to get caught up in the rhetoric."

Thriving ventures

Left to tell the story of the Stowerses and their unlikely route to a political war are people such as Marie Jennings, a spokeswoman for the Stowers Institute who routinely provides tours of the 600,000-square-foot complex.

As she shows off the lush digs, Jennings speaks of the Stowerses with a reverence that's typically reserved for the leaders of a spiritual movement.

She recounts how the couple proved their critics wrong by establishing a thriving mutual fund company hundreds of miles away from the nation's financial centers.

Then came cancer. James Stowers Jr., now 82, was struck by prostate cancer; Virginia Stowers, 76, has battled breast cancer.

After fighting off the disease, the couple put up $50 million to support medical research. In time, their efforts morphed into an idea equal in ambition to their business ventures.

Just as they proved that a mutual fund company can thrive in the Midwest, they set out to show that could build a world-class research facility miles from Harvard and Stanford.

The couple spared no expense in their quest, ultimately giving $1.5 billion, or 45 percent of American Century, to the Stowers Institute, which opened in 2000. Today, the project is supported by a $2 billion endowment.

Much of that money has been poured into the $300 million research complex, whose very architecture is designed to make researchers salivate.

The Stowerses have showered the place with every extravagance as a means to recruit top talent. Persian rugs adorn the floors, soft leather furniture congregates in lobbies, plasma televisions and original artwork compete for space on the gently hued walls.

And everywhere, researchers are pampered.

They break up their long days behind a microscope by working out in a top-notch exercise room. They dine on alligator tails, mussels and other exotic cuisine from an executive chef, who once cooked for the 2002 Olympians.

Stowers researcher Matt Gibson says he's never had it so good.

But Gibson says the creature comforts are only the icing on the cake. He says the reason he left Harvard for Stowers is because the institute is structured to support his research.

"They really make it easy for scientists to do science, " he said.

At Stowers, researchers are offered fully customized lab space before they pick up a beaker. The renovations can cost upward of $500,000.

Jennings says the approach has attracted talent at a rate much faster than anyone expected. And at least one outsider says the institute's reputation has skyrocketed just as quickly.

"The Stowers Institute, in a very short time span, has become one of the premier sites for work on the intersection between development and disease, " said Kenneth Chien, a professor of cell biology in the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

Heart of the quest

The fact that the Stowers Institute is at the center of a political fight has little to do with the research taking place there, but everything to do with the research it hopes to conduct.

For now, the work as described by the institute's president, William Neaves, is noncontroversial.

In a nutshell, Neaves said, Stowers researchers study how a single cell ultimately forms the trillions of cells that make up the human body. More specifically, scientists are exploring how the process of cell division can produce errors that lead to cancer and a host of other diseases.

At the heart of the quest is understanding how genes found in all human cells turn off and on to form different kinds of cells. Figure that out, Neaves said, and you have the key to regenerating damaged organs or combating cancer.

Much of the work at Stowers focuses on stem cells, which have the rare ability to form other kinds of cells.

Neaves says two-thirds of stem cell research dollars are spent on adult stem cell research involving animals, an area that produces little to no ethical conflicts. He says the work has produced breakthroughs in research in areas such as bone marrow transplants.

But where Neaves and others see even greater potential is in embryonic stem cell research. Such stem cells are considered to be more adaptable in fighting disease.

At least for now, Neaves said, the greatest hope within embryonic stem cell research lies within process that would be protected under the Missouri ballot measure.

That process, called somatic cell nuclear transfer, is a cloning procedure that involves extracting the nucleus of a human egg and replacing it with the nucleus of another cell. The resulting cluster of cells is destroyed to produce stem cells.

Although the process has yet to successfully produce stem cells in humans, much less lead to any cures, many see it as the best way to develop therapies from stem cells. But in the eyes of critics, the process destroys human life.

In recent years, legislators have threatened to ban somatic cell nuclear transfer in Missouri, but those efforts have failed.

Neaves says the political climate in the state has scared off researchers. The institute was unable to recruit two Harvard scientists who work on the process. Instead, the Stowerses have personally funded the scientists' research as they remain in Boston.

Neaves says the inability to bring the researchers to Stowers stunts the institute's potential. Neaves, typically reserved, fumes when he discusses the topic.

"Why shouldn't we pursue a research field that we feel holds more promise than any other contemporary field of biomedicine?" Neaves asks. "Should we not pursue because a minority of people hold a religious conviction that a few cells in a lab dish is a person?"

What critics say

Without the passage of the stem cell measure, Neaves has said, the institute would call off a plan that would involve adding a new research campus in the state every 10 years.

Winship, of Missourians Against Human Cloning, doubts the institute would truly pull the plug on its plans.

"It's a threat that's designed to make people vote yes, " she said.

But Welte, the Stowerses' lawyer, says the expansion comes down to simple math. With a $2 billion endowment, he said, the nonprofit institute is bound by federal law to spend a certain portion of its proceeds annually. Expansion is necessary, he said, if not in Missouri, then elsewhere.

In recent weeks, opponents of the stem cell measure have attacked the Stowers Institute on several fronts. Some have suggested that leaders of the institute would profit if the measure were to pass.

Few have claimed that the Stowerses themselves would cash in, given the amount of money they have donated to the institute.

But Larry Weber, of the Missouri Catholic Conference, has raised questions about a for-profit entity that's tied to the institute. He said the for-profit arm could enrichStowers' administrators as therapies are commercialized.

Neaves dismisses those claims. He says only researchers would receive royalties for their patents. The rest generated by the for-profit entity would be poured back into the institute's research.

"The assertion that any of us in the management will profit in any way from this commercialization of research is a total falsehood, " he said.

Critics such as Weber also have speculated that Stowers would begin to seek state funding if the measure were to pass -- an assertion dismissed by the Stowerses' lawyer.

"We will not accept state funding, " Welte said. "Because that gives the state the strings of control over recipients that we will never accept."

Welte says opponents of the stem cell measure have attempted to question the Stowerses' motives as a way to explain their heavy investment in the campaign.

But in reality, he said, their motives are clearly evident in the institute that bears their name.

"They've invested $2 billion in science, " he said. "They want that science to progress without restriction to cure disease."

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