Westward Whoa!

Stem cell restrictions could send Texas Medical Center researchers fleeing to California

Amid the Christmas rush at the Mall of the Mainland in Texas City, Ruth Pavelko's back scrunched into a prickly knot. The 49-year-old mom stumbled through the Foley's parking lot to her Pontiac, her lungs feeling as if they were filled with Jell-O. Three blocks down the street, Pavelko lurched to a stop and heaved up mucus. She clawed herself out along the side of her idling car and collapsed.

"I didn't know what was wrong with me," she says timidly, fiddling with her short, clear nails. "I just thought it would go away."

Pavelko spent Christmas in 1999 next to the red and green LED lights of an oxygen machine, recovering from a massive heart attack. A surgeon chopped and pricked, slicing through her ribs with an electric saw and conducting a bypass operation on two of her arteries.

After conventional treatments offered no relief, stem 
cell therapy helped Ruth Pavelko's heart problems.
Daniel Kramer
After conventional treatments offered no relief, stem cell therapy helped Ruth Pavelko's heart problems.
Geng (shown with computer images of stem cells) 
says therapeutic cloning advances will prolong life.
Daniel Kramer
Geng (shown with computer images of stem cells) says therapeutic cloning advances will prolong life.

Most people Pavelko's age can get by for at least 15 years on a double bypass; she made it six months. She was at home watching television when the clogged arteries turned her heart into a pressure cooker. A surgeon installed stents -- mesh tubes like Chinese finger cuffs -- to keep the passages open, but they stopped up again four months later, nearly killing her.

Doctors gave Pavelko less than two years to live, and for good reason: Her goopy blood, strawlike arteries and high blood pressure made beating coronary heart disease nearly impossible. A fourth heart attack on a sidewalk late last year left her desperate. She got zapped with radiation, received another stent and even pondered a heart transplant. Nothing worked.

"It seemed hopeless," she says.

Her situation was so hopeless, in fact, that she qualified in January for an experimental treatment developed by Dr. Yong J. Geng, a hotshot researcher at the Texas Medical Center. In one of the first attempts to use his technique in a human, Geng's doctors sucked bone marrow from Pavelko's hip with a giant syringe and parsed out 30,000 stem cells. They injected the cells through a catheter, straight into her arteries, in hopes that the cells would reconstruct them.

Pavelko waited three months without noticing any signs of improvement. About a month ago, she decided on a whim to clean the dishes and washed them all, by herself and without resting, for the first time in six years. A week later, she made her bed faster, did more laundry and started climbing stairs at will. "Just before you got here, I went up and got my shoes," she tells a visitor, sitting at her dining table and breathing normally. "I'm feeling a lot better."

By many accounts, Geng's stem cell treatment is one of the biggest medical breakthroughs of the decade. Expanding on the work with better cells from frozen and cloned embryos, Geng and other researchers eventually could unlock cures for everything from heart disease to hair loss. But it's just as likely that this cutting-edge research will be shut down and shipped off.

A growing cadre of activists in Texas is convinced that scientists shouldn't save lives by killing babies, and they're aiming this month to back up their beliefs with law.

Think of modern medicine without donated organs, without blood banks and without chemotherapy -- tools scientists helped develop over the past 30 years at the Texas Medical Center in Houston. A new generation of Texas researchers expects that, in years to come, those advances could look almost as quaint as castor oil peddled by the country doctor, all thanks to stem cells.

Doctors at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center use the cells to treat leukemia. Baylor College of Medicine professor Peggy Goodell studies stem cells with an eye toward someday manufacturing human blood, thereby eliminating the need for donors. And colleague Thomas Zwaka hopes his research eventually will allow scientists to use the cells in place of animals and human subjects in the study of diseases and drugs.

Even so, support for embryonic stem cell research in Houston and across most of the country is extremely conditional. Citing moral concerns, President George W. Bush four years ago approved federal funding for the work on the condition that it be limited to cells already extracted. The move left less than two dozen highly imperfect cell lines available for federally funded research.

But the restrictions haven't yet done much to slow down researchers such as Geng, who gained plenty of experience jumping through government hoops after graduating near the top of his high school class in China. His reward for good grades was to travel to the mountainous countryside for "conditioning" at a Maoist labor camp, where he farmed rice and pigs and nearly froze under a thin blanket.

"It was just like the life you lived 2,000 years ago," says the balding, 48-year-old cardiologist, who is sitting at his desk next to a plant growing in a beaker. "No different."

Studying almost every night, Geng escaped the camp four years later for medical school. But he didn't shake the government. Communist officials discovered that he was dating -- a banned activity for students -- and sent him to do his medical residency in a remote mining camp.

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