Long clouded by ethical concerns, medical treatments and research based on stem cells taken from adults or the umbilical cords of newborns — but not human embryos — are getting renewed support from lawmakers and religious leaders.
In the deep-red state of Kansas, lawmakers are waiting to see whether Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, will sign a bill making the University of Kansas Medical Center a hub for adult stem cell research and therapies in the region.
Mr. Brownback, a social conservative who promised to build a "culture of life" in the state, has signaled support for such a center. The bill passed the Legislature on Friday but has not reached his office, an aide said Wednesday.
If enacted, the new Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center would focus on research and therapies exclusively using stem cells from human adults and cord blood and tissue. Stem cells harvested from human embryos or tissues from aborted fetuses would be specifically prohibited.
Treatments exploiting the unique qualities of stem cells biological cells with the ability to reproduce and develop into specialized cells used throughout the body have been used for decades to cure some diseases, and researchers say the approach has exciting potential to treat or cure maladies such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, cancer, cardiovascular disease, spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's disease and autoimmune diseases.
However, political, legal and cultural battles have abounded since scientists discovered in the 1990s that they could use human embryos as sources for "harvesting" stem cells. Pro-life and Catholic groups denounced the process because it destroys the embryos, but scientists said such research can be carried out ethically, especially when the benefits are so promising.
The center is being proposed after seven years of efforts to create partnerships around the adult stem cell approach, said Kathy Ostrowski, legislative director of Kansans for Life, sidestepping the moral minefield that has held back research in the United States.
The University of Kansas Medical Center is active in adult stem cell clinical trials and research, and this first-of-its-kind center would be "an economic engine in this strategic field" as well as "a gold mine for treatments and cures," Ms. Ostrowski said.
The proposed Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center which would partner with the Blood and Marrow Transplant Center of Kansas would produce clinical-grade stem cells and conduct clinical trials with adult stem cell therapies, creating opportunities for people with diseases or injuries to participate in such trials.
During legislative hearings on the proposed stem cell center, no one testified against the idea. However, critics noted that while Kansas lawmakers established a way for donations to come to the new center, they didn't authorize any state money for it.
The center would cost $10.7 million over 10 years, with $1.1 million needed for fiscal 2014, according to a legislative analysis.
Ms. Ostrowski was not dismayed by the prospect of fundraising.
"There is money out there," she said, noting that the U.S. military, pro-life activists and numerous foundations and organizations have a strong interest in accelerating such therapies.
"The climate is right" for collaboration, she said.
The Vatican this week is hosting a second international conference on adult stem cell research and therapies.
"Regenerative medicine is poised to revolutionize disease management by finding new ways to boost the body's ability to heal itself," said Dr. Robin Smith, president of the Stem for Life Foundation and chief executive of NeoStem Inc., a cell therapy company, which are two of the co-sponsors of the Second International Vatican Adult Stem Cell Conference: Regenerative Medicine.
The Vatican's Pontifical Council for Culture, and its foundation, the Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest, are other co-sponsors of the conference, which runs Thursday to Saturday in Rome.
One of the conference sessions will be on the "long, painful, 15-year debate over stem cell research and therapy."
"The most promising therapeutic breakthroughs are being made in the area of adult stem cell research, while fetal research, the source of so much anguished disagreement, has unexpectedly yielded less impressive results," conference organizers said. "Where does the debate stand? What is next?"
A prominent keynote speaker is John B. Gurdon, a cell biologist and winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in medicine with Dr. Shinya Yamanaka. Their landmark discoveries show that mature, adult cells can be reprogrammed to become stem cells, thus removing the need for embryonic stem cells.
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