Stem-Cell Funding Issue Unleashes Flood of Lobbying

Bush to Decide on U.S. Money for Research

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WASHINGTON, D.C., MAR. 10, 2001 ( Will the Bush administration fund scientific research using stem cells from human embryos?

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson is at the center of argument on the matter, and this week he announced the appointment of a panel of researchers to advise him on the issue.

This news came during a speech given by Thompson in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, according to the city´s Journal Sentinel newspaper March 5. Thompson also said his department will still receive applications for stem cell research grants until the March 15 deadline set by the Clinton administration. The agency, however, will not decide whether to issue the grants until after the legal issues at stake are reviewed.

Some researchers believe that fetal stem cells have the potential to cure many diseases. They hope that pluripotent stem cells can grow into body organs, nerves, tissue and blood vessels. But because these cells are harvested from aborted fetuses and unwanted embryos from fertility clinics, pro-life groups want a ban on the use of government funds for research using stem cells.

In the past President George W. Bush declared his opposition to stem cell research. During the election campaign he maintained he would block federal funds for this research. At a Jan. 26 press conference, Bush restated his opposition to federal funding of research involving stem cells derived from discarded fetuses, but he did not commit himself to a ban. Thompson, for his part, counts himself as an abortion foe, but in the past has praised research using stem cells, the Los Angeles Times reported March 1.

Congress has approved legislation prohibiting the use of government money for research involving destruction of human embryos. But the Clinton administration decided that research on stem cells was not prohibited, so long as researchers themselves did not destroy the embryos. Thus, they could conduct research on cells taken from embryos that privately funded researchers had destroyed.

Bush petitioned by groups

Groups involved in the debate over stem cells have been sending letters to Bush, hoping to influence his decision. The Washington Post reported Feb. 22 that 80 Nobel Prize laureates signed a letter to the president, urging him to not block federal money for research.

Given the cells´ great therapeutic promise, say the laureates, it would be tragic to waste this opportunity to pursue work that could potentially alleviate human suffering.

Among the signatories are James Watson, Nobel in 1962 for co-discovering, with Francis Crick, the structure of DNA; molecular biologist Hamilton O. Smith, a key figure in the genome mapping effort by Celera Genomics; and Edward Lewis, a California Institute of Technology biologist on embryo development.

Criticism of the Nobel laureates letter came from Dr. David Prentice, professor of life sciences at Indiana State University and an adjunct professor of medical and molecular genetics at the Indiana University School of Medicine, in an interview published Feb. 26 by the National Review Online.

Prentice explained that there are alternatives to using cells from embryos, namely, adult stem cells from a person´s own organs. Another source of stem cells is the small amount of blood left in an umbilical cord after it is detached from a newborn. "In the last two years," Prentice commented, "we´ve gone from thinking that we had very few stem cells in our bodies, to recognizing that many, perhaps most, organs maintain a reservoir of these cells."

He also pointed out that an advantage of using one´s own adult stem cells is that there will be no transplant rejection. On the contrary, patients who use the stem cells of an embryo will require drugs for the rest of their lives to prevent rejection of the tissue. The only way to avoid this would be for the patient to be cloned and the embryo then sacrificed to obtain stem cells. This poses considerable ethical problems, however, since it involves creating a human being whose only purpose is to be "harvested."

Following the publication of the Nobel laureates´ letter, the Culture of Life Foundation sent a petition of its own to the president asking him to favor research using adult stem cells and to prohibit research involving fetal stem cells.

The Feb. 23 letter, signed by foundation president Robert A. Best, affirmed that recent research using stem cells derived from fetal tissue are disappointing. It is apparent, continues the letter, that "they are less useful than adult stem cells in providing new brain cells, nerve cells and other tissue." Best also pointed out that stem cells from adult tissue and from cord blood are free of ethical taint.

A study published March 8 in the New England Journal of Medicine confirmed there are medical problems in using fetal cells. That day the New York Times reported on a recent study in which doctors tried to treat Parkinson´s disease by implanting cells from aborted fetuses into the brains of patients. The cells failed to show an overall benefit. Moreover, in about 15% of the cases, an overproduction of the fetal cells triggered a chemical imbalance that caused the patients to writhe and jerk uncontrollably.

The uncontrollable movements were "absolutely devastating" for some of the patients, said Dr. Paul E. Greene, a neurologist at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and a researcher in the study.

The Christian Medical Association wrote to Thompson, urging him to act to prohibit the funding of embryo stem cell research. A March 1 letter, written on behalf of the association´s 14,000 members, affirmed, "Umbilical cord blood and adult bone marrow can also provide therapeutically promising stem cells -- without sacrificing human beings."

The letter also notes a number of accomplishments by researchers using adult stem cells. For example, the scientific journal Nature Immunology recently reported that Canadian scientists have identified a way to make adult stem cells grow in the laboratory. And on Feb. 23, PPL Therapeutics Inc. announced that it can now demonstrate the possibility of producing multipotential stem cells without the need to go through an embryo intermediate.

Moral judgment

On Aug. 25 the Pontifical Academy for Life issued a declaration on the question of using embryonic stem cells in research. It pointed out that an embryo is a human subject with a well-defined identity, who cannot be considered a simple mass of cells. As a human individual it thus has the right to life. Moreover, no end -- such as the therapeutic use of stem cells -- can justify the destruction of an embryo.

As well, the Academy of Life considered illicit the use of embryo stem cells supplied by other researchers. This is so because it involves cooperation in the production and manipulation of human embryos on the part of those producing or supplying them. The declaration concluded with an approval of using adult stem cells, instead of those coming from embryos. Whether President Bush agrees with this kind of evaluation remains to be seen.