Published on 02/15/07

Georgia lawmakers hear case for stem cell research

By Faith Peppers
University of Georgia

Rusty Kidd sat quietly in his wheelchair at the Georgia state capitol, taking notes as University of Georgia scientist Steve Stice detailed the promise of stem cells.

A lobbyist for medical groups for more than 30 years, Kidd's interest in stem cell research intensified when a spinal injury in a 1999 motorcycle accident left the former three sport star athlete a paraplegic.

"I don't think I'm a candidate for surgery today," said Kidd, who sought out the best doctors after his injury. He got a glimpse of the world of stem cell research from Dr. John McDonald, who was actor Christopher Reeves' physician.

"He had me look through his microscope," Kidd said. "He said, 'Rusty, we have the cure. In this dish right here we can grow what we need to grow -- a spinal cell, a kidney, a retina. Our problem now is we don't know which it will grow.'"

Kidd listened to Stice's testimony Feb. 8 before the Georgia General Assembly's Joint Committee on Health and Human Services. A Georgia Research Alliance eminent scholar, Stice explained the value of stem cells in developing treatments for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Huntington's and Lou Gehrig's diseases, muscular atrophy disease and spinal cord injuries.

A leading expert on cloning and stem cell research, Stice provided Georgia lawmakers information on where the science is, the future of science and its possible impact on society.

Stice's most recent discovery, announced Jan. 25, provides a way to grow progenitor neural cells that can provide billions of cells for researchers. The breakthrough should speed the research seeking treatments for debilitating diseases and spinal cord injuries.

Hot debate

But stem cell research has become a volatile, hotly debated political issue.

"Stem cells are actually very nondescript," Stice said. "But they have great potential to produce wonders in the human body. Stem cells have the ability to differentiate into other types of cells that can restore damaged tissue in the body."

One of the most startling moments in Stice's testimony came when he showed a slide of a cardiac cell developed from a stem cell that had a visible pulse.

"These cells may one day eliminate the need for heart transplants (by) replacing the damaged tissue in the heart," Stice told the audience of legislators and interested bystanders.

While embryonic stem cells seem to draw the most controversy, other forms of stem cells, including amniotic stem cells and umbilical cord blood stem cells, are also valued in research.

"They can all do different, useful things," he said. "There's no one-size-fits-all cell. They're all used differently."

Supply source

The largest source of embryonic stem cells is fertility clinics. "Usually in fertility treatments, seven or more eggs are fertilized with the hope that all can be transferred," Stice said. "That doesn't happen. Some are frozen back while two or three are implanted, hoping one will produce a pregnancy."

Some of the fertilized eggs don't develop enough and will never be used. These, he said, "are disposed of every day."

Those are the cells Kidd hopes will become more available to researchers. "A lot of research is being done in areas other than embryonic stem cells," Kidd said. "But none is nearly as good or as promising."

Kidd, who has spent most of his life around politics, said he's glad the debate has moved away from "an abortion issue." The cells that scientists like Stice hope to gain access to, he said, are incapable of becoming babies.

"You can do one of two things: you can throw them away or use them for research to help people," he said. "They aren't holding funeral services for them. They're just discarded, and you never hear anybody talk about them. But hopefully, in the future, you'll only hear people talk about how they're used in research."

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.