Westward Whoa!

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

Geng later married his contraband sweetheart and went on to a career of international renown. He studied stem cells in France and coronary disease in Sweden under Goran K. Hansson, who serves on the Nobel Prize Committee (and likes to visit Geng at his house in Pearland). In the United States, he bounced from teaching at Harvard to research at a heart institute in Pittsburgh. He's currently directing the Center for Cardiovascular Biology and Atherosclerosis Research in Houston, where he has studied the effects of stem cells in heart tissue using, appropriately enough, pigs. "I know how they behave," he says.

After receiving Geng's stem cell treatments, some patients have responded more dramatically than the pigs or even Pavelko: They've gone jogging on the beach and have had sex for the first time in years. No wonder scientists during a recent visit to Geng's lab were overheard referring to him as "the Master of the Universe."

Scientists close to Geng aren't the only ones thinking big. Stem cells are widely valued for their unique ability to create and repair tissue. Adult human stem cells, discovered in bone marrow roughly 30 years ago, sometimes don't serve this function as well as the more recently discovered embryonic stem cells, which scientists are now harnessing in hopes of rebuilding ailing human bodies -- an emerging medical discipline known as regenerative medicine.

This highly simplified diagram shows the difference 
between reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning. Click here to enlarge.
This highly simplified diagram shows the difference between reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning. Click here to enlarge.
Texas Right to Life's Emick lobbies lawmakers at the 
state capitol for laws against cloning.
John Anderson
Texas Right to Life's Emick lobbies lawmakers at the state capitol for laws against cloning.

If they wanted to, peer-reviewed medical journals could almost go sci-fi with headlines about recent breakthroughs: Stanford researchers create insulin-secreting cells, possible cure for diabetes. Japanese scientists inject dopamine-producing neurons into monkeys, reverse effects of Parkinson's. Rat with broken spine walks again. Researchers think stem cells will reverse blindness, end baldness, cure cancer.

William Brinkley, dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine, takes the hype seriously. "We are going to be able to potentially replace most of the organs and tissues of the body," he says. "It is going to be, potentially, one of the greatest medical breakthroughs in the history of the universe, but it's also certainly the greatest of the 21st century. I think it will dwarf others."

As the field matures, Houston's Med Center could be especially well positioned to attract more top scientists. Its 13 hospitals and 11 educational institutions form the largest medical center in the world. It's a good place for anyone who needs patients or money for clinical trials. The center already employs more people than any other single entity in the city, generating $12 billion a year in economic impact. Boosters say stem cell research could continue that growth, fueling Houston's diversification from petrochemicals into the vaunted knowledge industries.

"We will be able to attract not only attractive companies but brilliant minds," says Representative Senfronia Thompson, a Democrat from north Houston. "And we will be able to help find critical cures for people who are suffering from forms of cancer, diabetes, organ diseases -- who need transplants."

Thompson and Democrat Elliott Naishtat of Austin authored separate bills this session to provide more than $1 billion in state funding for Texas stem cell research, but neither bill went to a vote by last week's voting deadline.

A more modest proposal passed the House last Thursday as a rider that Houston Republican Beverly Woolley attached to an education bill. It provides $41 million for an "adult stem cell research center" at the Texas Medical Center, with $63 million for a similar facility in Dallas.

Woolley says the bill's wording also would allow embryonic cell research at the new centers.

The scientists "work day and night trying to help people," Woolley says, "and we really need to do this."

California already has wagered heavily on the same ideas. Its voters last year approved Proposition 71, which created the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and authorized a whopping $3 billion in state bonds for the research. Proposals in nine other states this year would together nearly match California's wad of cash.

Bush's cold shoulder has allowed California to woo Houston's stem cell experts. Geng has been offered positions in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. His lab recently lost two job candidates to labs in California, where they said they could find more funding. "Baylor, UT, M.D. Anderson, should be working together to establish this research," he says, "but without the money, we can do nothing."

That concerns U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a likely contender for governor in 2006, who is among a handful of Republicans to indicate that they might support stem cell funding. But taking a strong stand on even moderate proposals could be political suicide.

Woolley's rider still must pass the Senate, escape an appropriations committee's ax and somehow slide past Governor Rick Perry, who has said he'll oppose any legislation that funds the destruction of a human embryo. Perry knows what he's doing. The conservative right is the home team in Texas, and its players in suburbia are swinging for the bleachers.

On a Little League field in the modest suburb of Red Oak, south of Dallas, the Mustangs send their slightly pudgy right fielder to the plate. Riley Boswell ignores the other team's fourth-grade taunts. He gets a walk, steals second and takes third off a grounder -- all with a $5,000 computer jostling in his pocket.

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