UGA research puts Georgia at “ground zero” in stem-cell battle

Stem Cell electron micrograph by Annie Cavanagh and Dave McCarthy

AJC Political Insider Jim Galloway has written a fascinating article about Georgia’s pivotal role in the national stem-cell debate. This comes due to recent scientific advances on one hand and the increasing power of the right-to-life movement in the state’s Republican-dominated General Assembly on the other.

Galloway writes:

 The cauldron has been bubbling at the state Capitol for several years. The last fight was in 2009, over a Senate bill that — in one form — would have barred, among other things, the use of human genetic material in research involving other animals. The measure failed.

But science has provided the most immediate ingredients for a confrontation in Georgia.

In May, the University of Georgia unveiled a line of 13 custom-made pigs whose organs may some day be developed for human use, without rejection. Scientists used human DNA as a trigger to reprogram porcine adult stem cells into more malleable, powerful — but still porcine — embryonic stem cells.

The 20-year breakthrough has vast economic and medicinal potential — for the state and for UGA. And it was exactly the kind of research the 2009 legislation attempted to block.

On Tuesday, another, even larger shoe dropped. Geron Corp., a California firm, announced that the Shepherd Center in Atlanta had become the site of its first human trial involving embryonic stem cells. The subject is an unidentified, partially paralyzed patient who was injured only within the last two weeks.

No government funds are involved in the bottom-rung test at Shepherd, approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration. The baseline aim is to test whether treatment involving embryonic stem cells poses any threats to human patients.

The accident of geography alone is sure to encourage scientists at UGA, Georgia Tech and Emory University — who are following their own paths.

The two major gubernatorial candidates are split on this issue: Republican Nathan Deal opposes stem-cell research, while Democrat Roy Barnes supports it. No matter which one wins in November, there’s bound to be a renewed push by anti-abortion advocates for a state law banning stem-cell research.

The state’s major research institutions should find some allies in powerful corporate interests, who stand to profit from new medical procedures made possible by new discoveries.

Galloway concludes:

 Yet with the stakes so high, a confrontation is likely to require the personal intervention from the leaders (of) Georgia’s academic institutions. “I certainly believe that Tech and Georgia and Emory will be united on a position that this research should go forward,” said Adams, the UGA president.

He is not sure of the particulars, but Adams was very clear about past messages he’s delivered to state lawmakers.

“I have great respect for the people who have a different viewpoint than I do — especially those who see this on ethical and moral grounds. I’m concerned about life,” the university president said. “I’m a dedicated Christian. I don’t want to see any misuse of this science. But I believe that the good that comes to society far outweighs the negatives.

“I also tell them that, from where I sit, this has the ethical advantage of doing for other people in need what we would want done for ourselves,” he said — adding that the possibility of ending diabetes or Parkinson’s Disease is too profound to ignore.

“This is one of those areas where two groups of well-meaning people disagree,” Adams concluded. “And yet there’s no secret about what our position is.”

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Georgia Colleges is published and edited by Jonathan Grant, an Atlanta-based author whose works include the award-winning The Way It Was in the South: The Black Experience in Georgia (University of Georgia Press). He is currently developing a guidebook to Georgia colleges for parents, students, and educators.

Grant graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in English. He is a former newspaper reporter, editor, and bureau chief with The Macon Telegraph and served as a Georgia state government spokesman for several years.

He lives in suburban Atlanta with his wife, Judy, and two children–a college freshman and a high school senior. Actively involved in community affairs, he has served as a PTA president, a local school council member, and as a soccer coach for twelve seasons.