Westward Whoa!

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

It's precisely this supply problem, in fact, that scientists believe could be solved with therapeutic cloning. An embryo cloned from a patient could yield plenty of new stem cells, which could form new, genetically identical tissue. The tissue could be implanted in the patient's body without being rejected by his immune system. "I believe this is one direction we could go in this century," Geng says. "I would say therapeutic cloning really will eventually prolong our lives."

Other scientists agree. "The more short-term applications might be from adult, but the long-term and the very long term may even be all embryonic," says Goodell, the Baylor researcher. "And that's why, even though I really love my adult stem cells, I'm starting to work on them too. I think they really are going to have a lot of potential."

Of course, such news isn't likely to mollify some opponents. In fact, publicity stemming from Goodell's research four years ago prompted a flurry of hate mail, even though her work at the time focused on adult cells.

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.

The situation has been worse in Geng's building. Dr. Emerson Perin, Geng's collaborator on the adult stem cells project, has received death threats and reports of a strange man walking through the lab, claiming to be a doctor. There wasn't much he could do about it, Perin says, except change the locks.

Public relations has never been a priority for most Texas stem cell scientists. They may hope the public eventually will focus on other reproductive issues, such as the marital status of Eva Longoria, or they may just be reluctant to speak outside their professional niches. Geng, confronted with the pro-life arguments against his work, pauses and says, "Okay. I'm not a reproductive or cell biologist."

Unwilling to take a firm stand on the moral issues, Dr. James Willerson, Geng's boss and president of the UT Health Science Center, has instead focused legislative efforts on funding the adult stem cell center; other scientists privately criticize that proposal as inadequate for supporting embryonic research. Willerson declined to comment on why he chose to focus on adult cell lines.

Meanwhile, the vacuum left by scientists is being filled by professional bioethicists offering rebuttals to the pro-life arguments. One of the most prominent opinion makers is Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, who supports therapeutic cloning.

He notes that scientists repeatedly have been foiled in their attempts to nurture cloned primate embryos into full-blown fetuses, which means giving birth to a cloned human is probably similarly impossible. "Oddly, a cloned embryo may be less ethically controversial once the facts are understood," he says, "because it has the least potential to turn into an adult human being."

Caplan also supports research using conventional embryos. He responds to the pro-life "time and nourishment" argument with the idea that a young embryo, as a mere bundle of cells, has more in common with an iPod download than with a baby. "You wouldn't see a little baby in there; you would see a little program in there," he says. And statistically speaking, 60 to 70 percent of embryos self-abort before maturing, he adds, so there's nothing magic about conception.

Even so, Emick of Texas Right to Life isn't swayed. "That's a natural death," she says. "This death that would happen with the embryo would be induced by the scientist. So there is a clear difference there."

Of course, the embryo can't "die" if it isn't alive. On this point, Geng offers his wisdom as a cardiologist: There is no life until there are heartbeats. "After the heart is beating," the embryos "have circulation and life is going, because of their blood flow; they move."

You might call this the modern version of "the quickening."

The modern version of life, post-quickening, post-death threats, post-79th Legislature, would have Geng taking the quickest plane to California. After all, six years ago he barely passed up a job in Los Angeles for his position in Houston. He interviewed here during a temperate December; he visited the lab in L.A. during a torrential shower and an earthquake. But now a job in California might be more stable.

Of course, Geng's lab is large and shiny and Geng's house is large and affordable. But his daughter graduates from Rice next year, and losing those other perks isn't something a better salary couldn't fix.

Geng sums up his plans on a recent afternoon, sitting inside the blank walls of his office, which is unencumbered by anything personal that couldn't be packed up in five minutes. "If they did not allow us to do work with embryonic stem cells, at this moment, I would not think about moving to other states," he says.

"Unless there was a good job offer," he adds, laughing and slapping his desk. "Double my salary. I want to do that."

His chuckles die down. As a seeming afterthought, he adds: "I'm just joking."

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