Gov. Sam Brownback today signed into law a bill requiring the University of Kansas Medical Center to create a center for conducting non-embryonic stem cell research and patient therapies.
Surrounding him for the ceremony were three patients who credited stem cell therapy with saving their lives.
"If I hadn't received (stem cell therapy), I would be dead. My doctors have told me that," said Mary Lou Rusco of Wichita, who received treatment using umbilical cord stem cells. "I have been cancer-free for almost four years now. As far as I'm concerned, I'm cured. I really appreciate the fact that Kansas is doing this so other people can have access to this opportunity."
Senate Bill 199 arrived at the governor's desk over some opposition from legislators because the bill does not designate funds to pay for the center, which KU has estimated would cost $10.7 million over 10 years.
When the measure was debated on the House floor, Rep. Barbara Bollier — a Mission Hills Republican who is a retired physician — spoke against the bill calling it an "unfunded mandate." So did Rep. John Wilson, a Lawrence Democrat.
"Nobody at KU has been requesting that this center be developed. The people that are requesting it are people in this building and some folks from Washington, D.C.," said Wilson.
David Crum, a Republican from Augusta, responded during the debate:
"The center hasn't been established and it's very likely that it won't be established without this legislation. It is very much within the authority of the legislature to create policy that we think is in the best interest of the state."
Present at today's ceremony was David Prentice, from the Washington D.C.-based Family Research Council whose mission is "to advance faith, family and freedom in public policy and the culture from a Christian worldview."
In response to media questions about the lack of state funding for the project, Brownback asked Prentice to talk abourt funding opportunities that KU might pursue, in addition to federal grant dollars. Prentice said that he thought private funding for the research was readily available.
"There are actually commercial interests in terms of adult stem cell treatments. There are a number of companies trying to develop these (treatments) who are partnering with centers like the Midwest center will be. They are interested in funding trials, providing equipment and so on," Prentice said.
"There are some of these treatments going on obviously in Wichita and at KU," he said. "What has not been present is a comprehensive way to look at this. Patients are being treated in some places, some research is going on often not in the same places. This (center) will tie this all together in terms of oversight for clinical trials, oversight of the research, collaborative networks of physicians and researchers so that much more can go on — an order of magnitude more."
Brownback added: "And KU will be the leader. Kansas will be the leader in this, which is fabulous, in this burgeoning field," he said.
KU officials today released a statement which mirrored its previous neutral testimony on the bill:
Even before the creation of the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center, KU Medical Center scientists were engaged in promising research involving adult stem cells, such as additional therapeutic options including organ repair. SB 199 does not contain funding for the proposed center, though the center's operations include new functions, such as developing a structure that disseminates the knowledge of adult stem cells and associated technology for the state and region.
'Adult' stem cells
Some experts say that adult stem cells — while less controversial — are more costly and difficult to work with than embryonic stem cells, which can be harvested from fertilized eggs left over from artificial insemination.
Asked about that, Dr. Buddha Dawn — a cardiologist at KU Med who stood aside the governor at today's ceremony — said, for research purposes, embryonic stem cells can indeed have advantages over adult stem cells. But when it comes to therapies, adult stem cells are preferable "no question about it."
He said that was because — in limited studies so far — adult stem cells seem less likely to lead to tumors, which can sometimes form on regenerated tissue.
The need for the center
Currently there are between 50 and 75 doctors in Kansas and Missouri administering stem cell therapies to patients with cancer, officials at the ceremony said. A handful of doctors around the country are also using stem cell therapies to treat heart disease and nervous system diseases, such as multiple sclerosis (MS) and Parkinson's Disease.
But access to those treatments is extremely limited, and patients who seek the care out of state are not likely to have the therapy covered by their insurance, said Dr. Dana Winegarner, a Lenexa-based neurologist standing aside the governor today.
"If you come in to my office and say 'I'd like to be involved in an MS study' and the nearest one is in Chicago or L.A., that means a lot of patients who could be involved in research — for their own benefit and the learning of everybody — aren't going to be able to do it," said Winegarner, who has interest in stem cell research and therapies.
"It also means the experience is shotgunned all over the country," he said. "There's not a single place where there's back-and-forth between researchers and clinicians and patients. So this is hopefully going to pull it all together, and thereby accelerate treatment and discovery."
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