Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Missouri: A Barometer of American Values?

Missouri has long been viewed as kind of a bellweather for the American population's views on the world. The state sits in the middle of the country, but has both Midwestern and Southern cultural influences, reflecting its history as a border state between the two regions. But its also a state where a slight majority (52%) of voters live in two major urban areas: St. Louis and Kansas City. Although voter turnout surges in the state's rural counties, with its strong contingent of so-called Christian conservatives, managed to tip the elections in favor of Republicans in the late 1990s, that delicate balance has been tipped the other way in the past, which opened the doors to prominent Democratic Congressmen like Dick Gephardt.

More recently, incumbent Republican Senator Jim Talent barely squeaked by in the 2000 election, and in 2006, State Auditor Claire McCaskill (a Democrat) managed to tip the election back to a Democrat. McCaskill's team linked Senator Talent and President George W. Bush, by indicating that the senator did not represent "Missouri values" but was simply a rubber stamp for numerous failed Bush policies, most notably the policies in Iraq. That message resonated among Missouri voters, even among enough Republicans who voted for McCaskill to elect her as a Senator of the "Show-Me State".

So what does all this have to do with type 1 diabetes?! Aside from the fact that Missouri is home to such diabetes research powerhouses as Washington University at St. Louis, 2006 also marked an important Missouri vote on stem cell research, which was thought to be indicative of the whole country's feelings on that issue. In 2006, voters in Missouri amended their state's constitution to protect stem cell research, even the controversial form that uses cells from human embryos. In fact, actor Michael J. Fox appeared in several highly-publicized TV ads that ran in Missouri, visibly shaking from Parkinson's disease as he sought votes for stem cell supporter Claire McCaskill in her bid for the U.S. Senate.

This morning, the Associated Press ran a story on how the stem cell movement in Missouri seems to have stalled. Supporters should remember that while winning elections on issues like this is important, advocates cannot simply forget about all of the work that went into winning the election issues in the first place. Opponents will do everything they can to stall progress. As California's initial experience suggested -- where numerous legal challenges were made regarding Proposition 71 in the California courts which were both time-consuming and expensive to respond to -- and now Missouri's more recent experience has proven, the issue is far from being resolved, even if its Constitutionally-protected in a state like Missouri.

Stem cell movement in Mo. seems stalled
Associated Press
July 24, 2007

KANSAS CITY, Mo.- Eight months ago, Missouri seemed well on its way to becoming a national leader in stem cell research.

Voters amended the state's constitution to protect stem cell research, even the controversial form that uses cells from human embryos. Actor Michael J. Fox appeared in TV ads, visibly shaking from Parkinson's disease as he sought votes for stem cell supporter Claire McCaskill in her bid for the U.S. Senate.

Now the spotlight is all but gone, after a research institute and lawmakers withdrew financial support.

"Things are obviously not moving forward," said state Sen. Chuck Graham, a Democrat who backed the amendment in November. "Right now, you can't tell the amendment passed. People are running in the opposite direction. It's incredibly frustrating."

Some researchers even fear that the techniques known as therapeutic cloning could be outlawed in Missouri.

Scientist Kevin Eggan had once considered packing up his lab at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and moving to Missouri. Now he's reluctant.

"I couldn't possibly come to a place where I thought the potentially lifesaving research I want to do could become illegal," said Eggan, who works on degenerative nerve disorders such as Lou Gehrig's disease.

The setbacks began when conservative Missouri lawmakers stripped funding for some prominent life sciences projects, including a $150 million research center at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

Project halted

In June, a medical institution in Kansas City announced that it would halt its $300 million expansion because of controversy over the research. The founders of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research had financed most of the $30 million campaign to pass the amendment.

Critics of embryonic stem cell research oppose the process because it requires embryos to be destroyed to harvest their cells.

"I think stem cell research is extraordinarily promising and exciting and that we ought to move forward on it. But Missouri does not need to clone human embryos in order to become a leader in life sciences," said state Sen. Matt Bartle, a Republican who wants to repeal November's vote.

Opponents were encouraged when three teams of scientists announced last month that they had produced the equivalent of embryonic stem cells in mice without destroying embryos.

Two weeks later, President Bush vetoed a bill that would have permitted human embryonic research - a clear signal to like-minded Missourians who saw November's vote, 51% to 49%, as anything but a clear mandate.

Signs of progress

Some amendment supporters insist that the stem cell movement is still moving forward.

"There's no question that Missouri is better off today than it was prior to the November election," said Connie Farrow, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, which supports the measure.

Proof of the progress, Farrow said, can be found in embryonic stem cell projects at Washington University in St. Louis, the Stowers Institute and the University of Missouri.

Stowers researchers, for example, are coaxing stem cells to develop into the types of cells that make up the human spine to possibly learn more about the causes of scoliosis.

Stowers spokeswoman Laurie Roberts said the institute has been conducting human embryonic stem cell research since the start of the year. Finding more stem cell researchers has been a struggle, she said, but the effort continues.

The institute "absolutely wants to expand and to do it right here in the state of Missouri," Roberts said, referring to the more than 100 acres that the institute bought in Kansas City.

Other states are closely watching developments in Missouri.

Since the amendment's passage, Farrow said, supporters of stem cell research from Nebraska, Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and Virginia have contacted the Coalition for Lifesaving Cures. They want pointers on how to promote stem cell initiatives in their states, she said.

"Our stem cell amendment is a model for other states," Farrow said. "We're not going to stand idly by and let a few minority interest groups take our state backward."

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