Last week, the University of Georgia unveiled a set of 13 handcrafted pigs.
The freshly shampooed creatures represented a 20-year breakthrough in campus research. “A seminal discovery in animal and human biology,” declared Scott Angle, dean of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences.
Two UGA researchers, Steve Stice and Franklin West, have discovered how to implant and activate pluripotent stem cells — capable of morphing into any kind of organ — into pig embryos.
Forget the jargon. In a world of possibilities, the immediate bottom line is this: Custom-made animals without the complications of cloning, whose organs could be developed for human use — without rejection.
“We could have herds and herds of pigs from which we would collect beta islet cells for diabetic patients, hearts for transplants — kidneys, livers and such,” said West, a 28-year-old product of Augusta, Ga., public schools and Morehouse College.
Diabetes therapy is the lowest-hanging fruit. The UGA researchers are already collaborating on a project with Emory University.
Patent rights are likely to be worth a deal of money to a cash-starved University of Georgia. Chances of quick adaptation and use within the private sector are excellent.
But this is not a science column.
The political point is that UGA lobbyists and Stice himself, the father of stem cell research in Georgia, have spent the last several years in the state Capitol, protecting this research from Republican legislation that would have — depending on the bill — crippled or prohibited it.
Human embryonic stem cells, the primary target of many GOP lawmakers, were not used in the UGA project. But the scientists did use human DNA to reprogram the adult porcine stem cells into infinitely more malleable embryonic stem cells.
The human trigger means that the 13 pigs are “chimera” — an unfortunate name that has its roots in Greek mythology and a fearsome monster thought to be part lion, part snake, and part goat.
Which is why Stice doesn’t use the term. His pigs, the researcher said, “are what we call transgenic.”
No matter what term is used, the concept of marrying human and animal cells is likely to give many politicians heartburn. And yet those same politicians will solemnly declare that biotechnology — of the right kind — is the key to high-paying jobs and economic development in Georgia.
For Stice, West, and 50 or so other experts in stem cell research — as counted by the non-profit Georgia Research Alliance — the question is whether the next governor will support, stymie or turn a blind eye to their work.
“They don’t have to be here. They can work almost anywhere in the world that they want to,” said Angle, the dean of UGA’s agricultural college. “And it’s important that we have a friendly environment for people like them.”
Obtaining an answer is more difficult than you might think.
Last month, Georgia Bio — a consortium of public research and business interests — invited Democratic and Republican candidates for governor to a pair of forums before an assembly of the state’s scientists, academics and CEOs of bioresearch firms.
Two dates were scheduled at Kennesaw State University: May 20 for Democrats, and May 27 for Republicans. The stampede of candidates has been less than thunderous.
On the Democratic side, only three have agreed to attend: Attorney General Thurbert Baker, who last week declared biotech to be an essential part of his jobs program; former National Guard commander David Poythress; and Ray City Mayor Carl Camon.
Response from the GOP side has been even weaker. Only two candidates have agreed to appear — former congressman Nathan Deal of Gainesville, and Otis Putnam, a 35-year-old Wal-Mart worker from Macon.
To be fair, statewide candidates are jealous of their time. And Georgia is a large place. The Democratic campaign of Roy Barnes, for instance, said the former governor loves science but is committed to a downstate event for teachers.
The Republican campaign of Karen Handel, who opposes embryonic stem cell research, said the former secretary of state will be in far-away Greensboro, Ga., that day.
But Charlie Craig, president of Georgia Bio, says it’s essential for the state’s top technical brains to know what the men and woman who would be governor think about education, health care reform, economic development and its connection to the life sciences.
In particular, how do we create more people like Steve Stice and Franklin West? Who, presumably, can’t be mass-produced like their pigs.
“Candidates who are not participating are telling us that these aren’t priorities for them,” Craig said.
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