A heated battle is raging across Missouri over the issue of stem cell research and therapy. On one side is the fanatic anti-abortion element of the religious right. On the other is an incredibly broad coalition of health professionals, academic institutions, disabled citizens, progressive organizations, private corporations and wealthy individuals. The latter include major donors to the Bush election campaign. The outcome in this state could presage the coming conflict at the federal level.

At issue is the contention that the 5-day-old microscopic ball of cells (blastocyst) from a human zygote produced in the laboratory, and the embryonic stem cells derived from it, are humans. Thus, their use to develop specific tissues for therapy is murder and should be outlawed.

Of course, the blastocyst has no heart, nerves, or other human tissues, so this absurd definition of humanhood brings into clear focus that the opposition is based on religious dogma rather than a concern for human life.

Stem cell therapies hold potential for enormous improvements in human welfare and life expectancy. The research is in its infancy, but amazing results have been obtained with mice and rats, including treatment of disorders of heart and blood vessels, kidneys, diabetes, and debilitating nerve diseases, including spinal cord injuries and Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s disease alone afflicts 2 percent of people over 65.

The agenda of the religious right is strongly represented in the legislative and executive branches of Missouri’s state government (as it is in Washington). At the same time, the biomedical industry hopes to make the state a major center for cutting-edge research.

Besides its obvious benefits for people, this remarkable technology has the potential for enormous financial benefits for the academic institutions and private corporations that participate in its development and applications.

The corporations are running scared at the prospect of a mass exodus of biomedical scientists. Already, Dr. John W. McDonald, a Washington University Medical School neurologist who treated the late actor Christopher Reeve, has left for Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, partly blaming the political atmosphere in Missouri.

In an unusual move in late August, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich issued an invitation to Missouri scientists to relocate in adjacent Illinois which became the fourth state after California, New Jersey and Connecticut to approve funding for stem cell research. Blagojevich even alluded to a specific case: the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, which is delaying a planned $300 million expansion until it is assured that stem cell research will not be criminalized in Missouri.

A consortium of academic and business leaders formed the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, with the Episcopal minister and former Sen. John C. Danforth, (R-Mo.), as one of the co-chairs. In a desperate but risky move, $3.3 million was raised to power a petition drive, including many television ads. The drive would seek to collect 150,000 signatures to put on the 2006 ballot the issue of both allowing and setting limitations on stem cell research, therapies and cures. The vote may never occur. Opponents of stem cell research quickly filed suit against Robin Carnahan, the Missouri secretary of state, to block the initiative from appearing on the ballot. Even the collection of signatures is off until settlement of this issue. Meanwhile, Roman Catholic archbishops called for all Missouri priests to deliver a homily in Sunday mass that “embryonic stem cell research is evil. Don’t sign the petition.”

Meanwhile, other countries with far fewer resources are making progress. Researchers at Seoul National University in South Korea say they have produced human embryonic stem cells that were

exact genetic matches of the patient to be treated. The World Stem Cell Hub in Seoul began receiving patient registrations for stem cell therapies on Nov. 1. They were flooded with applications.

David Kennell (kennell@borcim.wustl.edu) is professor emeritus of molecular microbiology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.