The stem cell bill offered at the Minnesota Legislature this year,
which would have allowed the University of Minnesota to use state funds
to conduct research on embryonic stem cells, was authored by a Democrat
and doctor of biophysics, Rep. Phyllis Kahn. It was vetoed by lawyer
and evangelical Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Pawlenty’s veto message appears to borrow its point of view from both
the Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life and a report commissioned by
the White House to deflect criticism from Bush’s veto of a federal stem
cell bill (PDF). Pawlenty vetoed the bill because it was not "consistent with sound ethical and moral standards."
Pawlenty’s veto message extolled the virtues of adult-derived stem
cells, particularly those extracted from umbilical cords, placentas and
amniotic fluid, as superior to embryonic stem cells. The difference
between the two has to do with their applicability for research.
Embryonic cells are pluripotent, while adult stem cells are
multipotent. The difference is in the cell’s mutability: Pluripotent
cells are capable of developing into many kinds of tissue, and are thus
more powerful tools in the course of medical research.
But new research has given Pawlenty and the religious right reason to
be excited. Researchers have developed adult stem cells that act like
embryonic stem cells. They are pluripotent and are called "induced" pluripotent stem cells.
"Unlike embryonic stem cells, which are obtained by destroying live
embryos, iPSCs are made directly from adult stem cells by adding a
small number of factors to these cells in the laboratory," Pawlenty
wrote. "No human eggs are used and no embryos are destroyed." Pawlenty
wrote that that is the research funding he would be willing to sign.
There’s a big problem with iPSC research that Pawlenty and his
religious right advisers have failed to mention. iPSCs could cause
cancer — one of the diseases they are being created to combat.
That’s because iPSCs are made by injecting genetic material into adult cells.
One of those genes, called c-Myc, can induce cancer. Luckily,
scientists have found a way around that issue and identified another
gene to use. The problem? In order to get those genes into the cells,
they have to use a retrovirus that likewise could possibly cause cancer.
That virus carries the genes into the cells and deposits them into the
DNA of the cell, where those genes transform the cell into a
pluripotent cell. The virus used to carry the genes into the cell’s DNA
is called a lentivirus.
One lentivirus that is known by name in most every home in America: the
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), also known as the virus that causes
Stem cell biologist Robert Lanza told Scientific American that there are a number of other hurdles
to using these cells versus embryonic ones. "These cells have been
severely modified. I don’t think the FDA would allow us to use these
virally modified cells," he said.
It’s probably unlikely that researchers will be able to find willing
participants to be injected with a virus in the same family as HIV,
even if initial indications are that it’s safe.
The researchers who conducted the studies that Pawlenty touts have said
that their research should not be seen as a replacement for embryonic
stem cell research. William Lowry of UCLA’s Eli and Edythe Broad Center
of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research helped create the technology.
"It is important to remember that our research does not eliminate the
need for embryo-based human embryonic stem cell research, but rather
provides another avenue of worthwhile investigation," Lowry has said.
Pawlenty’s veto letter does little to explain to Minnesotans the real
science behind the bill he rejected, but it does show that religious
ideology has trumped science again in Minnesota.