Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Rachel Melcer explains the coming fight over the future of biotech in Missouri in today's St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Proponents of the biotech industry fear that Missouri could outlaw stem cell work, even as California and other states are enthusiastically and financially supporting it. The result would be a siphoning away of researchers and firms.

"There are lots of incoming legislators for whom this issue will be brand new, and that presents a tremendous educational challenge," said Donn Rubin, executive director of the Coalition for Plant and Life Sciences, which is working to build a biotech industry in St. Louis.

He spoke on behalf of the letter signers: William Danforth, chairman of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center; Elson Floyd, president of the University of Missouri system; Mark Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University; and William Neaves, president of the Stowers Institute for Medical Science in Kansas City.
This is only the beginning of a debate that will have an enormous impact on Missouri's future in the biotech field. As I noted in a previous post, there is a strong push by conservative legislators to restrict areas of exploration as well as encourage the teaching of bad science (e.g. intelligent design, which isn't science at all, but is being marketed as if it were). While the conservative argument is that they are on the morally correct side of the issue, the fact of the matter is that they may be pushing their agenda in an area in which they have little understanding.
Opponents say somatic cell nuclear transfer, the method that led to cloning Dolly the sheep, creates viable human embryos that are killed in the process.

"The end doesn't justify the means," Lembke said. "I don't believe in us building our economy on the backs of human embryos. I don't believe that to (sacrifice) the life of one human being for the sake of the life of another human being is an ethical or moral thing to do."

Most researchers agree that the procedure could lead to a human clone, but only if the process were taken well beyond the few days of growth allowed in stem cell research - including implanting the cells into a womb. Scientists almost universally agree that human cloning is wrong and won't engage in it.

Ursula Goodenough, a biology professor at Washington University and past president of the American Society for Cell Biology, said the cloning argument was "a red herring." Scientists are developing ways to create stem cells that could not survive or grow into a baby, even if that were tried.

"These slippery slope arguments are very dangerous," she said. "If I buy pounds of fertilizer, it could be used as a bomb to blow up a federal building - but that doesn't mean that's what I'm going to use it for."
While Goodenough's last comment is a bit strong, the point is well taken. There are multiple applications for all sorts of tools and techniques. The biotech community is already working to police itself and is working to find ways to improve health care techniques. It is not trying a new form of eugenics.

The question is, will Missouri be left behind and be marked as a backward-looking Luddites? A number of groups and companies have invested enormous amounts of money in Missouri with the idea of developing a bitoech program here. Will bad science and crafty politics put Missouri at the bottom of the list for future investment?

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