Life, Death and Money

Will Texas pony up bucks to lead in stem cell research? Pro-lifers hope not.

Amid the Christmas rush at the Mall of the Mainland in Texas City, Ruth Pavelko's back scrunched into a prickly knot. The 49-year-old mom stumbled through the Foley's parking lot to her Pontiac, her lungs feeling as if they were filled with Jell-O. Three blocks down the street, Pavelko lurched to a stop and heaved up mucus. She clawed herself out along the side of her idling car and collapsed.

"I didn't know what was wrong with me," she says timidly. "I just thought it would go away."

Pavelko spent Christmas in 1999 recovering from a massive heart attack. A surgeon sliced through her ribs with an electric saw and conducted a bypass operation on two of her arteries.

Riley Boswell and his mother, Amy, oppose embryonic 
stem cell research, even if it could lead to a cure for 
Riley’s diabetes.
Josh Harkinson
Riley Boswell and his mother, Amy, oppose embryonic stem cell research, even if it could lead to a cure for Riley’s diabetes.

Most people Pavelko's age can get by for at least 15 years on a double bypass; she made it six months. She was at home watching television when the clogged arteries turned her heart into a pressure cooker. A surgeon installed stents--mesh tubes like Chinese finger cuffs--to keep the passages open, but they stopped up again four months later.

Doctors gave Pavelko less than two years to live. Her goopy blood, strawlike arteries and high blood pressure made beating coronary heart disease nearly impossible. A fourth heart attack late last year left her desperate.

"It seemed hopeless," she says.

Her situation was so hopeless, in fact, that she qualified in January for an experimental treatment developed by Dr. Yong J. Geng, a researcher at the Texas Medical Center. In one of the first attempts to use his technique in a human, Geng's doctors sucked bone marrow from Pavelko's hip with a syringe and parsed out 30,000 stem cells. They injected the cells through a catheter, straight into her arteries, in hopes that the cells would reconstruct them.

Pavelko waited three months without noticing any improvement. About a month ago, she decided to clean the dishes and washed them all, by herself and without resting, for the first time in six years. A week later, she made her bed faster, did more laundry and started climbing stairs at will.

By many accounts, Geng's stem cell treatment is one of the biggest medical breakthroughs of the decade. Expanding on the work with better cells from frozen and cloned embryos, Geng and other researchers eventually could unlock cures for everything from heart disease to hair loss. But it's just as likely that this cutting-edge research will be shut down and shipped off.

A growing cadre of activists in Texas is convinced that scientists shouldn't save lives by killing what they believe are babies, and they're aiming this month to back up their beliefs with law.

Think of modern medicine without donated organs, without blood banks and without chemotherapy--tools scientists helped develop over the past 30 years at the Texas Medical Center in Houston. A new generation of Texas researchers expects that, in years to come, those advances could look almost quaint, all thanks to stem cells.

Doctors at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center use the cells to treat leukemia. Baylor College of Medicine professor Peggy Goodell studies stem cells with an eye toward someday manufacturing human blood. And colleague Thomas Zwaka hopes his research eventually will allow scientists to use the cells in place of animals and human subjects in the study of diseases and drugs.

Even so, support for embryonic stem cell research across most of the country is extremely conditional. Citing moral concerns, President George W. Bush four years ago approved federal funding for the work on the condition that it be limited to cells already extracted. The move left fewer than two dozen highly imperfect cell lines available for federally funded research.

But the restrictions haven't yet done much to slow down researchers such as Geng, director of the Center for Cardiovascular Biology and Atherosclerosis Research in Houston, who has studied the effects of stem cells in heart tissue using pigs.

After receiving Geng's stem cell treatments, some patients have responded more dramatically than Pavelko: They've gone jogging on the beach and have had sex for the first time in years. No wonder scientists during a recent visit to Geng's lab were overheard referring to him as "the Master of the Universe."

Scientists close to Geng aren't the only ones thinking big. Stem cells are widely valued for their unique ability to create and repair tissue. Adult human stem cells, discovered in bone marrow roughly 30 years ago, sometimes don't serve this function as well as the more recently discovered embryonic stem cells, which scientists are now harnessing in hopes of rebuilding ailing human bodies.

William Brinkley, dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine, takes the promise of stem cells seriously. "We are going to be able to potentially replace most of the organs and tissues of the body," he says. "It is going to be, potentially, one of the greatest medical breakthroughs in the history of the universe."

As the field matures, Houston's Med Center could be especially well-positioned to attract more top scientists. Its 13 hospitals and 11 educational institutions form the largest medical center in the world.

"We will be able to attract not only attractive companies but brilliant minds," says Representative Senfronia Thompson, a Democrat from north Houston. "And we will be able to help find critical cures."

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