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Ruling on stem cell research threatens projects here

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 25, 2010 - A federal judge's ruling striking down the Obama administration's policy on embryonic stem cell research could result in an immediate halt for now in this kind of medical work in Missouri and nationally, according to some local and national proponents of the research.

That view was reinforced late yesterday by news that the National Institutes of Health has imposed a nationwide freeze on grants in the pipeline. That decision could affect research underway at both Washington University and the University of Missouri at Columbia.

An example of how far-reaching the ruling has become in a day involves the work of Michael Roberts, an animal science and biochemistry professor at the Columbia campus. For nearly six years, he has been doing placenta-related research into preeclampsia, an illness triggering hypertension in pregnant women. Roberts had applied for a $1.8 million National Institutes for Health grant to continue this work.

"Unfortunately, this grant does have a section on embryonic stem cell. Even though that is just one part of the grant, I was informed late yesterday that it will not be funded. The NIH said it had been advised by the Justice Department to put a freeze on all embryonic stem cell research. This is very bad."

Initially, Roberts believed his research wouldn't be affected by the ruling, thinking that he could shift to reprogrammed adult stem cells for his work. But he said he was informed yesterday that the freeze would affect any research grant that involves even a small portion of embryonic stem cell work.

"This isn't just about the Obama order involving stem cell. It also involve the policy from the administration of George Bush. In other words, the judge's order has expanded the type of research that can't be done. It is a blow to science in general."

St. Louis proponents of embryonic stem cell work also are troubled by the ruling.

"This is a setback, obviously, for those who promote stem cell research as a search for cures" for diseases, says Donn Rubin, chairman of the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures. "It's an injunction that really blocks funding, temporarily, for the research until a full hearing can be held on the issue."

Rubin's group was instrumental in gaining approval of a state amendment that made embryonic stem cell research possible in Missouri. The amendment, put to voters in 2006, said Missouri law on stem cell issues couldn't be more restrictive than federal regulations.

Rubin said the ruling "unfortunately, does create a cloud of uncertainty because it's not clear if it applies to future projects that could be funded or whether any scientist, researcher or doctor who right now is in the midst of a project that's using stem cell research has to cease doing that project if federal funding is supporting it."

Rubin, a lawyer who is also executive director of the Coalition for Plant and Life Sciences, a group seeking to build a biotech industry in St. Louis, argues that the judge apparently exceeded the remedy that opponents of stem cell research had sought. He says the opponents' suit was aimed at future federal funding, rather than existing projects.

"But the judge's ruling seems broad enough to impact existing research projects that already have been funded."

For that reason, Rubin says the ruling could have an adverse impact for now on "a handful" of embryonic stem cell research projects at Washington University and the University of Missouri at Columbia.

For now, Washington University didn't have any immediate comment. The bulk of the university's medical research funding comes from NIH.

But Dr. Steven Teitelbaum, an immunologist and pathologist at the university, says NIH's reaction to the court ruling means "any new grant is on freeze" for embryonic stem cell research. He says NIH's grant system usually finances work for four or five years at a time, and that grants are up for renewal each year. But he says the university could no longer count on new grant money beyond this funding year even if the grant was supposed to cover several years.

"We don't know. The university is puzzled as well. It's devastating. It's going to arrest a lot of scientific research and put us way behind other countries. This is a draconian decision."

Pam Fichter, head of Missouri Right to Life, praised the ruling. "We are pleased with it. It's a temporary injunction, but we hope it will be the final decision. The Obama administration is clearly violating the law, which did not allow federal dollars to be used for embryonic stem cell research."

In reacting to the ruling, Saint Louis University said it was "committed to acting consistently with the teachings of the Catholic Church. As a Catholic and Jesuit university, Saint Louis University's mission, vision and values support the Catholic Church's positions and teachings on abortion and embryonic stem cell research." It noted that the university does engage in research involving adult stem cells, which includes umbilical cord blood stem cells, which it said was consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church.

From the trenches of stem cell research

Among those strongly condemning the federal ruling was Dr. Camillo Ricordi, who engages in stem cell research as part of his work as director of the Diabetes Research Institute and the Cell Transplant Center at the University of Miami. He was formerly at Washington University.

He says the research already is showing promising results in his field, diabetes.

"For example, human embryonic stem cells have been already successfully expanded and differentiated into insulin-producing cells and have successfully reversed diabetes after transplantation in experimental models," he says.

In the next three years, he says, "pilot clinical trials are now planned with such insulin-producing cells derived from human embryonic stem cells. Another example, even if it is not my field, is the Geron trial with human embryonic stem cells to treat spinal cord injury. I understand that this trial is already active and moving forward."

He says most people are missing the "real problem and setback" surrounding the judge's ruling.

Stressing that his views represent his personal opinion and not the institutions that are part of the university, Ricordi notes that the ruling refers to both research in which an embryo is destroyed for research purposes as well as discarded embryonic cells. He says he can understand "a possible argument" on matters involving embryos purposely destroyed to perform research.

But he says, "We work with all kinds of stem cells and we are transferring what we learn from embryonic stem cell research to adult stem cells."

In time, he predicts that many opponents of this research will change their minds, noting that some religious groups once argued against organ transplantation a few decades ago but now strongly support the procedure.

He cites several reasons for not criminalizing research using embryonic stem cells. Stopping the research, he says, would be like prohibiting a heart transplant to save a child's life because the donor heart came from a suicide victim or a victim of a drunk-driving accident.

Using a discarded organ or tissue to save a life does not imply an "endorsement of the cause of death," such as suicide or drunk driving, said Ricordi. Except in cases of tissues from prisoners sentenced to death, he says any discarded tissue resulting from a legal procedure or an accidental event should be used when possible to develop potentially life-saving cures.

In the future, he says, embryonic stem cells may not be as crucial as they now are for developing new cures for diseases.

"But for now blocking this kind of research even for discarded tissues is equal to throwing away an organ that could save a child."

Ricordi says he agrees with people like Lisa Hughes, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, who called the judge's ruling "a blow to the hopes of millions of patients and their families suffering from fatal and chronic diseases and disorders."


Documentary on Stem Cell Research


The decision spurred interest in a documentary and panel discussion on the subject Tuesday evening at the Jewish Community Center's Millstone Campus. The documentary, called "The Stem Cell Divide" focused on efforts to pass the 2006 Missouri stem cell initiative. More than 250 people turned out for the screening, sponsored by the St. Louis Jewish Film Festival, Haddassah, Triumph Documentaries and the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures. Members of the panel were all strong supporters of stem cell research as, it appeared, were most members of the audience. 

Dr. Steven L. Teitelbaum, a professor of pathology and immunology at Washington University School of Medicine, said the court decision would not stop stem cell research as it is occurring worldwide most notably in Israel and Singapore. "Science is not a country," he said. "There are no borders." Even so, he added, the U.S. has been recognized as a a leader --"the 800-pound gorilla" -- and the nation risked becoming "second rate" when it comes to groundbreaking research that could someday offer effective treatments to intractable medical maladies.

Some information for this story was contributed by Richard Weiss, a contributing editor to the Beacon.

Funding for health reporting is provided in part by the Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization whose vision is to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.