U researchers look to stem the tide of an uncertain future

Shifts in government, public opinion and the program are affecting what the Stem Cell Institute can do.

Aaron Blake

On the 14th floor of Moos Tower, the laboratory appears ordinary. Researchers wear jeans, put plates under microscopes and record their observations. Also under their eyes is a controversy – cells that offer extreme hope to some and cause extreme apprehension to others.

The University’s Stem Cell Institute is at an important juncture in its brief existence, especially in the politically and morally contentious realm of embryonic stem cell research.

Changes in government, society and the University will affect the Stem Cell Institute’s ability to contribute to the University’s goal of becoming one of the top three research universities in the world.

With stem cells at the forefront of research, the institute would seem to be a good tool to use toward that goal.

University Vice President for Research R. Timothy Mulcahy, who has had held his current post since February, said stem cells are important to the University research community.

“We’re not going to hang everything on (the stem cell) program, because we have other areas of strength as well,” Mulcahy said. “But it is certainly one that we’ve honed, one that we’re recognized for and one in which we have an opportunity to make significant contributions.”

Established in 1999, the institute was the world’s first interdisciplinary center dedicated to stem cell research. More than 500 people participate in all areas of the research, from undergraduate students to world-renowned director Catherine Verfaillie.

The institute is best known for its work with Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, cardiology and genetic disorders.

It had a major discovery in 2001, when Verfaillie identified multipotent adult progenitor cells, which have the potential to become many types of tissue. Embryonic stem cells have the potential to become any type of tissue.

This summer, the institute will move into the new McGuire Translational Research Facility.

The facility’s innovative design includes mobile benches and open rooms, which allow for increased communication between the newly opened facility and the adjoining Lions Research Building. The College of Pharmacy’s Orphan Drug Center and the new Center for Infectious Diseases and Microbiology Translational Research will also be in the McGuire facility.

“Both buildings now kind of function as one complex,” said Kevin Ross, University project manager for capital planning and project management.

For now, the institute is indeed at the forefront of stem cell research as the pioneer for only a handful of stem cell programs in the United States.

But things could change – either for the better or for the worse, depending on where you stand.

Funding for embryonic

Researchers make no mistake about the potential they believe embryonic research has, including curing numerous diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and diabetes.

But many people believe destroying human embryos for scientific purposes is immoral, including President George W. Bush. His ban on federal funding for new embryonic stem cell lines has stood since August 2001.

Some signs suggest this camp might be losing strength. Gallup polls of 1,000 people in each of the last four years show a steady decrease in objections to embryonic research.

In May 2002, Gallup found 39.32 percent of people said the research was morally wrong, while 51.84 said it was morally acceptable. In May 2005, 33.43 percent objected and 59.94 percent approved.

As a federal bill repealing Bush’s ban nears a vote in the U.S. Senate, the president has promised to use his first veto if it passes.

“I stand strong on (my principle), to the point where I’ll veto the bill as it now exists,” Bush said May 31.

But though new legislation might not become reality, changing views among lawmakers and the public are encouraging for some in the University research community.

Mulcahy said he’s sensing the shift.

“In 2001, the president was basically able to make a policy decision relatively unchallenged,” he said. “Now political leaders are beginning to challenge that position.”

On May 24, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act passed 238-194 in the House, and 50 Republicans crossed party lines. The bill’s chief Senate sponsor, Arlen Specter, R-Penn., said recently that he has not only the 60 votes required to avoid a filibuster, but the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto. In the House, the bill would need 290 votes to guarantee an override.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R.-Tenn., said on June 15 that he hoped to have a vote on the Senate floor within a month.

U’s need for embryonic

Because embryonic stem cells are more versatile than adult stem cells, many researchers insist they need to work with them. But because the University has to rely strictly on private funds for new embryonic lines, researchers are limited.

Since the institute’s opening, it has received $39 million of its $43 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty has not taken a strong stance on embryonic stem cell research. When he went public with a $35 million bioscience initiative in early 2004, University officials did not ask that embryonic research be included.

Institute postdoctoral fellow Colin Martin said that besides simply increasing the amount of lines researchers have to work with, combining fresh embryonic lines with advances in technology from the last four years would allow for better research. For example, researchers can now grow stem cells without using contaminated animal products.

“We’re kind of handcuffed right now,” Martin said. “We have a decent tool, but it could be better.”

Losing ground?

Several states have taken steps to provide state support for embryonic stem cell research.

California, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts all provide support for the research; the latter two joined the list in the last month. Wisconsin lawmakers are also dealing with the issue.

A bill in the Minnesota Legislature introduced early this year is still in its beginning stages.

Political developments in other states have some concerned that the University would have trouble retaining and hiring the best faculty members in a place where only private funds could be used.

Mulcahy said federal funding would give everyone a fair chance.

“We wouldn’t be confronted with falling behind states that are investing so heavily in it,” he said. “So it really has a lot of implications for our university.”

The federal bill’s future

But the possibility of a presidential veto and staunch opposition to embryonic research has somewhat tempered researchers’ optimism.

Even with the newfound bipartisanship, 180 of the 230 Republicans who voted in the House stood along party lines.

At the University, Pro-Life Law Society officer Tony Kriesel said he would hope for Bush’s veto if the Senate indeed passed the bill. Not only does embryonic stem cell research destroy human life, it’s also promising things it can’t deliver, he said.

“The fact of the matter is nothing from embryonic stem cell research has produced any results,” Kriesel said. “A lot of what’s being promised is pie in the sky with no concrete scientific evidence behind it.”

Mulcahy said that much of embryonic stem cell research right now is evaluating its potential.

But he said while certain predictions might not pan out, researchers need the funding to assess their accuracy. Without it, the University’s stem cell research might not be able to compete.

“It would make it a significant challenge – there’s no question about it,” Mulcahy said. “The availability of federal funding would, I think, serve to level the playing field so that researchers in states that don’t have the same kind of initiative that California has generated will have opportunities to fund the research.”