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Stem cell research advocate set to speak at UMSL

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 27, 2012 - A noted office- and retail-space developer, who is also an award-winning advocate on juvenile diabetes and stem-cell issues, will be in St. Louis tomorrow afternoon to address topics related to in vitro fertilization and stem cells.

“This is a period of huge opportunity,” said Robert “Bob” Klein, author of Proposition 71, a multi-billion dollar 2003 California stem-cell ballot initiative, “but it’s also a period of tremendous threat to medical research.”

Klein is president of Klein Financial Resources, a real estate development firm, and Klein Financial Corp., which facilitates mortgages for affordable housing. Klein sits on the board of directors of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and is a former chairman of the governing board of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine.

In 2005, Klein was listed by Time Magazine as one of the year’s 100 most influential people while Scientific American named him to a group of 50 leaders shaping the future of science. He has also been recognized by Research!America, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, California State University, the California Legislature and the International Society for Stem Cell Research for his advocacy of stem-cell research.

Klein will address what he believes to be political dangers to ongoing scientific work. He singled out the advance of “personhood” legislation, which deals with the legal status of fertilized eggs and embryos resulting from cloning, which he fears could limit or prohibit IVF activity and embryonic stem-cell research, both of which have become hot button issues in a larger debate over abortion.

Opponents of embryonic stem-cell research believe that the use of such cells is morally objectionable because they see it as the destruction of a human life. They also say that research on adult stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells, neither of which is derived from fertilized human eggs, is proving efficacious.

“This is one of the most optimistic times in history to deal with chronic disease and reduce human suffering, but it is also a time of tremendous political misinformation and political risk,” said Klein who believes embryonic stem-cell research should continue. “We’re hoping information gets to the public and they realize how close we are to really getting to see a revolution in medicine.”

Klein, the father of a child with juvenile diabetes, said that there are potential advances in the stem-cell arena for a wide variety of maladies. Researchers are moving toward human trials on studies of a number of diseases such as age-related macular degeneration and paralysis.

“As a father, you watch the suffering of your child and you have to really relate to parents of children who are suffering from genetic diseases, diabetes, leukemia, the blood cancers,” he said. “You see the potential to treat those [illnesses] decisively by intervening early in life and it’s really a moral obligation to step up and make certain that that research reaches your child and everyone’s child.”

He worries about budgetary issues, which he said could sharply curtail research as a cash-strapped Washington watches its debt deal come to fruition.

“The fallback solution in this country for balancing the budget is that if we don’t have some tax increases, the sequestration plan will kick in,” Klein said.

He said that could mean significant shrinkage in the budget for the National Institutes of Health.

“It would be devastating for medical research right at this time just as we are trying to get these therapies to patients with Parkinson’s, diabetes, stroke, heart disease and cancer,” he said.

Klein highlighted the Show Me State’s potential to be a national center for translational medicine given its strong academic base.

“There are important contributions coming out of Missouri,” he said, “and those institutions are going to need private philanthropy like they never have before" if there are major cuts in NIH funding.

He said states have increasingly been stepping in to fill the gap and cited examples like Connecticut, which recently committed $100 million toward stem-cell research grants and which he said is now attracting millions more in funding and jobs.

“They believe that there’s a huge payback, both for institutions in the state and for the state itself from this investment,” he said. “Missouri has a capacity as a state that is many times that of Connecticut. If Connecticut can do it, then certainly Missouri should be able to participate in this medical revolution on a much higher level.”

Klein said, however, that it was hard to even get a message out as science writers have suffered badly from cuts at media outlets around the nation.

“The researchers and physicians are going to have to embrace the responsibility of informing the public,” he said, “because we’ve lost our communicators. (Families need to) understand where the hope and opportunities are in medical research.”

Klein talks at 2 p.m., Fri., Sept. 28 at UMSLin the Millennium Student Center’s Student Governance Center.