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Blunt, McCaskill walk a fine line on stem cells

By Matthew Franck

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

10/24/2004

At first glance, the differences between Missouri gubernatorial candidates Matt Blunt and Claire McCaskill seem clear when it comes to stem cell research.

Blunt, a Republican, says he opposes research on stem cells taken from human embryos; McCaskill, a Democrat, favors such research.

But nothing in the stem cell debate is simple. Anti-abortion activists and scientists alike say it's only in the gritty details where Blunt and McCaskill's positions are truly manifest.

And in the hazy ethical territory of stem cell debate, some say the two candidates offer political answers that don't square with science, leading to potential confusion about their views.

In the process, Blunt has angered his anti-abortion supporters by backing a certain form of stem cell research, but opposing most other areas of research. Both candidates, meanwhile, have some observers scratching their heads over what they regard as contradictory statements related to cloning.

At stake is not only whether certain kinds of research remain legal, but the future of a growing biotech industry that could bring jobs to St. Louis and Missouri.

McCaskill has said that clarity on the issue is vital.

"To send a mixed message on this is really disastrous for economic development efforts that we have ongoing with life sciences in this state, " she said at a debate in Kansas City on Monday.

Nuclear transfer

The crux of the debate in the governor's race is over a specific type of stem cell research that both Blunt and McCaskill support. That procedure -- called somaticcell nuclear transfer -- is often referred to as a therapeutic cloning.

But understanding somatic cell nuclear transfer requires a grounding in the fundamentals of stem cell research. So here are the basics as they relate to the candidates' positions:

Stem cells are cells that have the potential to develop into many different cell types. As such, they can act as a kind of repair system for the body, offering potential treatment for a variety of diseases.

Under the broadest definition, stem cell research can involve harvesting cells from adults or umbilical cords. Neither is controversial; both are supported by Blunt and McCaskill.

Nearly all the ethical arguments center on stem cells harvested from human embryos.

More often, those embryos are left over after in-vitro fertilization. In other words, they result from fertilized eggs that are not used by a couple seeking to have children.

Research using such frozen embryos is legal, but federal funding can only be used on certain stem cell "lines." That's to say, the cells had to be harvested from one of a few embryos that were already destroyed for research when President George W. Bush approved limited funding in 2001.

Blunt says he opposes stem cell research that uses fertilized eggs. He and many pro-life advocates equate the destruction of such embryos as abortion.

"I believe it would be wrong to create human life merely to destroy it so you could harvest stem cells, " Blunt said at the Kansas City debate.

McCaskill, however, supports harvesting stem cells from fertilized eggs. The alternative, she said, is to throw away frozen embryos that have already formed.

McCaskill and Blunt say they are in agreement, however, on harvesting stem cells through somatic cell nuclear transfer.

Under that process, groups of cells called "blastocysts" are formed in a laboratory without fertilizing an egg with a sperm. Instead, a nucleus of an unfertilized egg is removed and replaced with the nucleus of another cell.

If those cells are allowed to mature they could theoretically form a human. But researchers say they are nowhere near being able to implant such an embryo in a womb, and nearly all ethicists would oppose doing so.

Difficult topic

Explaining somatic cell nuclear transfer -- much less taking a position on it -- has proven difficult for both Blunt and McCaskill, who have been accused of offering inconsistent statements.

Take, for example, comments McCaskill made at a debate in Kansas City on Monday. "I would veto any bill that would criminalize research that could save lives, " she said. "Although I obviously have strong moral and ethical oppositions to anything related to cloning."

The problem with that statement is that many consider somatic cell nuclear transfer to be a form of cloning.

"The process of somatic cell nuclear transfer results in a cloned embryo, " said Richard Chole, a cloning critic and chair of the otolaryngology department at Washington University. "There's no ethical difference."

Others, however, say McCaskill and Blunt are correct when they seek to distance stem cell research from cloning.

Donn Rubin, executive director of the Coalition for Plant and Life Sciences, said many hear the word cloning and think of a cloned infant.

"The problem is that the word clone is so loaded with meaning with the public, " said Rubin, whose organization promotes the region's biotech industry.

McCaskill said that's precisely why she feels comfortable saying she opposes cloning and yet favors somatic cell nuclear transfer.

"I'm anxious for the public to see that this is a process that's being done for research, not for purposes of creating a human life, " she said.

Blunt's position is similar. Like McCaskill, he said he does not view somatic cell nuclear transfer as a form of cloning.

But critics see more problems with Blunt's views on stem cells than merely his definition of cloning. Some anti-abortion activists say he's not being clear when describing embryonic stem cell research in general.

Blunt said that when he uses the term "embryonic stem cells" he refers only to cells harvested from fertilized eggs.

But many abortion opponents say the term "embryo" applies equally to somatic cell nuclear transfer. Others say that's not quite true, since the cells have not yet formed an embryo by the time the stem cells are harvested. When questioned, Blunt said that he does not consider such cells to be a form of human life.

Political standing

From a political standpoint, the issue of somatic cell nuclear transfer is sticky for Blunt, since his views on the matter are at odds with many of his anti-abortion supporters.

The group Missouri Right to Life recently downgraded Blunt's rating because of his support of cloning related stem cell research. Despite the fact that therapeutic cloning does not involve fertilization with a sperm, the group regards the resulting stem cells as human life.

McCaskill has accused Blunt of trying to have it both ways on the issue. She said he tells business crowds that he supports stem cell research for economic development, while scoring points with anti-abortion supporters by saying he opposes embryonic research.

But Pam Fichter of Missouri Right to Life says Blunt isn't winning over her group's members when it comes to stem cell research. Having said that, she said she believes Blunt is confused on the issue of cloning and may switch positions on somatic cell nuclear transfer.

"We're still hopeful that he'll get on the pro-life side of this issue, " she said.

Leaders of Missouri's biotech industry say it's critical to have a political environment where their research is understood and supported.

Currently, no embryonic stem cell research is believed to be taking place in the state. Neuroscientist John McDonald had been conducting research at Washington University using stem cell lines approved for federal funding. But McDonald is leaving the university and said he's not aware of any other research in Missouri.

Even so, biotech officials say legislation banning somatic cell nuclear transfer could cripple future research and economic development. Earlier this year, the Stowers Institute of Medical Research in Kansas City said it would not build a second center in Missouri if the state outlaws forms of stem cell research.

The debate over such research has already played a key role in Jefferson City.

In May, the Senate shot down a plan that would have resulted in $190 million in life sciences buildings for the University of Missouri at Columbia. The objection: Legislation related to the plan did not contain a ban on human cloning research.

As the state takes up similar legislation in the future, both anti-abortion activists and scientists say it's critical that the governor have a firm command of the stem celldebate, with all its nuance and gradations. Unless the political and scientific dialogues overlap, they say, bad policy could result.

"I think that we have a common vocabulary that people can understand, because there are games that can be played with language, " Rubin said.

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