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Stem cell debate continues in MO, despite breakthrough

By Julie Bierach, KWMU

SAINT LOUIS, MO – Last month, two teams of researchers announced that they've been able to make ordinary skin cells act like embryonic stem cells. It's a major breakthrough in the science world because it has the potential to remove the ethical and moral dilemmas that have plagued the embryonic stem cell research debate.

But, that's not exactly the case in Missouri, where scientists and groups continue to debate the necessity of a controversial technique used in embryonic stem cell research.

It's a critical scientific accomplishment.

By adding four genes to ordinary human skin cells, two separate teams, one in Japan and one at the University of Wisconsin-Madison report the genetic reprogramming of human skin cells to create embryonic-like stem cells, without the need for a human egg.

In Missouri, the news didn't quell any of the back and forth, it's only changed the focus.

Those on both sides of the embryonic stem cell debate are arguing over whether embryonic stem cell research is necessary, specifically the controversial method, somatic cell nuclear transfer.

"It's obsolete technology, it's obsolete science from a number of scientists," says Jaci Winship with Missourians Against Human Cloning.

"It's absurd to suggest this experimental technique and these early steps in the laboratory would warrant a halt to any other kind of research," said Donn Rubin, chair of the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures.

Both Winship and Rubin were on opposite sides of the debate last year when voters passed Amendment 2. It protects all forms of embryonic stem cell research permitted under federal law and bans human cloning in Missouri. Human cloning, under amendment 2 means the implantation of an embryo created through Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer. Winship calls that a loophole that allows cloning.

"Somatic cell nuclear transfer is the process for cloning, and if you somatic cell nuclear transfer with a human, which has not viably been done, then that's human cloning," said Winship. "And human cloning in any avenue for any purpose is wrong," she adds.

Winship and her group are trying to fill that loophole by putting another question on the November 2008 ballot. And they're using this latest development to prove that SCNT is no longer necessary.

But Rubin contends that while the reprogramming method holds promise, scientists still need to be able to pursue other research methods. He says embryonic stem cells are the gold standard in terms of their versatility.

"So, what the scientists' aim is to be able to match that versatility with this new technique or some other technique. And without continued research with embryonic stem cells, they'll never be able to know if they are being able to match the versatility of a naturally embryonic stem cell," said Rubin.

Local scientists are also debating the necessity of SCNT.

Dr. Steven Teitelbaum, a professor of pathology and immunology at Washington University agrees with Rubin. He says because the genes used in the reprogramming method are inserted using a retrovirus, they can't yet be put in humans.

"And retroviruses can cause problems in cells, for example, they have potential of course in cancer. So before we're gonna be able to use this technique for regenerative medicine, we're gonna have to figure out a different way of putting genes into the cell," said Teitelbaum.

Teitelbaum says it's necessary for scientists to continue researching SCNT.

But Dr. Richard Chole, an otolaryngologist at Washington University disagrees. He believes SCNT is no longer necessary.

"SCNT is a very difficult, expensive time consuming process that leads to cells that are very abnormal and very hard to control in animals, and has never been done in a human. So here is a method that can be done in human cells, doesn't require the production of an embryo and works much better," said Chole.

As both sides celebrate this latest advance in stem cell research they continue to clash over the necessity of SCNT. And while scientists contend the new reprogramming technique signals the beginning of the end to the ethical dilemmas of embryonic stem cell research, here in Missouri, it unlikely to end any time soon.

This series is made possible with support from The DNA Files, a project of SoundVision Productions. More information is available at www.dnafiles.org.