Jul
19
2006

On Tuesday, the US Senate passed three bills regarding stem cell research.

Two were pretty uncontroversial: one encouraged stem-cell research using cells from sources other than embryos—adult bone marrow or hair follicles, or umbilical cord/placental blood. (The National Institutes of Health is already spending $571 million this fiscal year on this kind of stem cell research.) And one prohibited “fetal farming”—gestating fetuses for the purpose of providing tissue and other material for research.

The House of Representatives passed the bill about fetal farming, but voted down the bill promoting alternative stem cell sources. President Bush signed the ban on the commercial production of human fetal tissue into law today.

The third bill—which President Bush has just vetoed—would have expanded federal support of medical research using embryonic stem cells. Right now, researchers using federal funds can only study a handful of embryonic stem cell lines that existed before August 2001. The failed bill would have allowed federal funding for research on stem cells from thousands of unneeded embryos created in fertility clinics. (Couples with extra embryos resulting from fertility treatments would have had the option of donating them to research instead of having them destroyed by the clinic.) An override of the veto is unlikely.

What ARE stem cells?
Stem cells are simply cells that can develop into other types of cells. They can make copies of themselves indefinitely, and can become specialized for various body tissues. They are produced by embryos and also found in limited numbers in adults, but embryonic stem cells are pluripotent--they can become almost any kind of cell in the body--while adult stem cells are more limited. Scientists think they might be able to grow replacements for damaged tissues if they can coax stem cells to become the specific types of cells needed. Stem cells could someday provide treatments or cures for cancer, spinal cord injuries, burns, strokes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, diabetes, and other ailments.

Mouse stem cells: (Courtesy NSF)
Mouse stem cells: (Courtesy NSF)

Why not use the pre-2001 stem cell lines?

In August 2001, the Bush administration and National Institutes of Health said that 60 stem cell lines had already been developed. Federal funds would be limited to research on those lines, and could not be used to create any more. But further investigation showed that less than 22 lines were actually available, and all of them had been maintained in culture dishes with blood products from rodents--scientists say the cells can’t ethically be used to treat people because of the danger of animal viruses and other contamination. Many of the lines aren’t aging well; if they don’t keep growing and dividing, they die, and some lines are accumulating mutations and other defects. Most research is limited to six of the stem cell lines. And they aren’t a very genetically diverse lot.

But the White House says,

"The use of mouse cells is standard scientific practice. ... As the Food and Drug Administration has indicated, the resulting stem cell lines can be carefully screened to ensure they are safe for use in any future clinical trials. Drug and biological products are routinely co-cultured with animal cells with no adverse consequences for the millions of people who have benefited from them."

Why not use private money?
Some labs have produced additional stem cell lines using private money, but researchers have to be scrupulous about segregating work on the newer cells from work done with federal money. The University of California, San Francisco, for example, is spending $5 million to set up a separate stem cell research lab where scientists can work without the federal restrictions. All the lab equipment they need already exists elsewhere on campus, but it can't be used for new stem cell work.

Some states see an opportunity in the federal restrictions. California announced that state money--$3 billion over 10 years--would be available for research into embryonic stem cells and therapeutic cloning. But the initiative is being fought in court. Connecticut has an 10-year, $100 million initiative. Illinois spent $10 million last year. New Jersey spent about $25 million in the last two years. And Maryland has approved a $15 million budget. But scientists in other countries are doing far more work with embryonic stem cells than scientists in the US. And losing out now means that the US could lose the eventual commercial applications developed through such research to the countries with looser regulations.

What's the issue with using embryonic stem cells?
Harvesting stem cells destroys a developing embryo. That's the crux of the whole issue. Those who oppose embryonic stem cell research say that the potential cures promised by stem cell research supporters offer false hope to some suffering Americans while encouraging the destruction of embryos to provide the cells. Members of the US Senate, debating earlier this week, expressed the gamut of opinions:

Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said,

"I do not question that an embryo is a living cell. But I do not believe that a frozen embryo in a fertility clinic freezer constitutes human life."

Senator Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), the Senate majority leader and a transplant surgeon, said,

"I believe that the progress of science and a pro-life position demand that Congress can send a message. I hope that we can redeem this loss of life in part by using these embryos to seed research that will save lives in the future."

Senator David Vitter (R-Louisiana) said,

"...I firmly believe that [neither] Congress, independent researchers nor any human being should be allowed, in effect, to play God by determining that one life is more valuable than another."

Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma), who is also a physician, said,

"The fact is, there is not one cure in this country today from embryonic stem cells."

Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said,

"So the choice is this ... throw [the embryos] away or use them to ease suffering and, hopefully, cure diseases."

Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) said,

"We do not need to treat humans as raw material."

and

"It is immoral to destroy the youngest of human lives for research purposes. We don't need to do it."

Public opinion polls show that 70% of Americans support embryonic stem cell research. What do YOU think? Should the US government help fund it?

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Liza's picture
Liza says:

Wired reporter Gretchen Cuda suggests that placental stem cells may be our way out of the controversy: they’re available in large numbers, don’t involve the destruction of even a single embryo, are almost as adaptable as embryonic cells, and carry less risk of tumor creation.

posted on Wed, 07/19/2006 - 2:15pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

The National Institutes of Health provide some basic stem cell information.

And this Washington Post article has a nice summary of the debate, and a good description of what stem cells are and how they could be used. (You may have to register with the Post to view this site.)

posted on Wed, 07/19/2006 - 2:18pm
steve wasinger's picture
steve wasinger says:

The marketplace should dictate the research, if embryonic stem cells are useful, let the drug companies finance the research. There are private companies researching now.

posted on Wed, 07/19/2006 - 9:01pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Sure. That's an argument that makes sense, I suppose, but here's MY problem with it: right now, we're talking about pure, basic research, not applied sciences. I would think that we would want the results of all such research to be open, transparent, and public, so that all can benefit and all can scrutinize. If we relegate it to the private sector entirely, we will only know what they WANT to tell us, you know? It will be all about products, and not so much about scientific advancement.

posted on Thu, 07/20/2006 - 9:39am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Politicians weren't the only ones weighing in during the Senate debate.

Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that

"...[Embryonic stem cell research] could be advnaced by the availability of additional cell lines. ... We may be limiting our ability to achieve the full range of potential therapeutic applications ... by restricting research to the relatively small number of lines currently available."

James Battey, chairman of the National Institutes of Health Stem Cell Task Force, said

"from a purely scientific standpoint it would be difficult to argue that more cell lines available for federal funding would not speed some areas of research."

posted on Thu, 07/20/2006 - 12:55pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

From a July 16 article in Time, "What a Bush Veto Would Mean for Stem cells: The President's stand could slow research, but scientific ingenuity is cooking up new breakthroughs," by Nancy Gibbs, Alice Park, Mike Allen, and Massimo Calabressi:

"...Feelings run so strong on this issue that opponents have built a practical case to bolter the ethical one. The promise of embryonic stem cells has been oversold, they argue, while actual progress using adult stem cells has been overlooked. Though advocates talk longingly about the 400,000 frozen embryos in fertility clinics, a Rand Corp. study in 2003 found that 86% of them have been designated by patients for their future use or someone else's--there are approximately 100 'snowflake kids,' children born from adopted frozen embryos--and only 2.8% for research. Even if that number rose with the release of federal funds, the healthiest embryos are the ones that get implanted, and the act of freezing and thawing embryos may do damage as well. Rand estimated that at best perhaps 275 viable lines would become available. That's 10 times the number now being studied using federal funds, but they would not provide the quality, quantity, and genetic diversity that scientists seek."

posted on Thu, 07/20/2006 - 1:28pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

An editorial in the Boston Globe reads, in part:

"Under the bill, research with federal funds would be limited to embryos left over from fertility treatments. The couples who created the embryos would have to give permission for experimentation. It is noteworthy that, outside of the Catholic Church, few opponents of embryonic stem cell research also seek to ban in-vitro fertilization, which also results in the discarding and destruction of embryos. This practice is so widely accepted because it has allowed previously infertile couples to have children. Once stem cell research provides the medical breakthroughs that scientists believe are possible, opposition to it will also melt."

Do you agree or disagree?

posted on Thu, 07/20/2006 - 3:17pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

There are other viable stem cells that we can learn to "harvest" from adult cells...and therebye avoid "harvesting" living little humans!
We can rise to the challenge to use adult stem cells....

posted on Thu, 07/20/2006 - 3:39pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Adult stem cell research is pretty universally accepted, and federally funded. As it should be, I think.

However, adult stem cells are difficult to remove, limited in quantity, and limited in usefulness. Right now, anyway, they can be coaxed to produce only a few of the 220 cell types in the human body.

posted on Mon, 07/24/2006 - 2:09pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

The State of California has just agreed to lend its stem-cell research institute--the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine--$150 million dollars.

Wait... California is lending itself money? Yup. Turns out the $3 billion in state general obligation bonds that California voters approved to fund stem-cell research are tied up in court, and the new money will help the Institute finance research projects while the court case drags on.

Governor Schwarzenegger moved to provide the funding after President Bush vetoed the bill that would have expanded federal funding for stem-cell research. Schwarzenegger said, on Wednesday, that he wants California to be a leader in the field in part because his father-in-law has Alzheimer's disease.

Governor Blagojevich of Illinois has offered $5 million in grants for stem cell research in his state, too.

Before these two announcements, researchers competed for $72 million in state funds and $90 million from the National Institutes of Health for research using the approved lines.

Embryonic stem cell research is now an issue in several hotly contested political campaigns, including those for governor, senator, and representative in Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Missouri, and Tennessee.

posted on Fri, 07/21/2006 - 3:20pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

So, researchers can't use federal money for experiments involving stem cell lines created after 2001, and they can't use federal money to create any new ones.

The National Institutes of Health has budgeted $39 billion in 2007 for research on the approved embryonic stem cell lines.

By contrast, researchers have found $4 billion in state and private funds to do unrestricted embryonic stem cell research.

So what's the problem? According to a MedPageToday teaching brief,

"The veto 'doesn't change the near-term difficulties that scientists have in getting this work done,' says Stanford University cell biologist Christopher Scott, Ph.D., executive director of the university's Program on Stem Cells and Society.

One example of those difficulties is seen at the University of California San Francisco, where researchers are rebuilding a laboratory originally financed with U.S. government grants so they can use it for privately-funded embryonic stem cell research.

In the same building, other scientists will use government money to conduct nearly identical experiments using the so-called "presidential" cell lines from the NTSB. The two labs will not be able to share equipment, supplies -- or even graduate students, who are forbidden from working together.

Rebuilding the lab to comply with the federal rules is not only cumbersome, it's costly. 'It's a burden, a huge financial burden,' Arnold Kriegstein, M.D., Ph.D., director of UCSF's stem cell institute, said.

But it's the long term that bothers Dr. Scott. 'What I worry about," he said in an interview, "is that young scientists (faced with limited government research money and possible sanctions) would, it seems to me, choose another career.'

'The American research system could lose a generation or perhaps two who could be making sure that America remains at the top of the heap in terms of biomedical research,' he said.

'Nobody does biological and biomedical research better than we do,' he said. 'We're the gorilla -- but is the gorilla getting sick?'"

posted on Mon, 07/24/2006 - 10:20am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I think it is wrong to continue stem cell research even with "stringent ethical rules" or whatever that means.

posted on Mon, 07/24/2006 - 12:31pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

This site, run by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, does a really nice job of covering hot button topics, including embryonic stem cell research, from a variety of perspectives.

posted on Mon, 07/24/2006 - 2:07pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I think that stem cell research needs to be funded...it isn't hurting anyone...only helping. Maybe it will save you or someone you love.

posted on Mon, 07/24/2006 - 7:41pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

stem cells rule!

posted on Wed, 06/27/2007 - 4:18pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Scientists have purposefully paralyzed rats in labs, and thru stem cell research, they've cured the paralysis in the animals. Shouldn't we keep on advancing research so we can someday be able to do the same with humans?

Chris Reeve had the right idea...

posted on Tue, 07/24/2007 - 1:27pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Voters in New Jersey have rejected a ballot proposal that would have allocated state funds for embryonic stem cell research. (The funding restrictions Liza describes above apply only to federal money; individual states are able to fund research as they see fit.) Many voters opposing the measure cited ethical or moral concerns. Others expressed worry over the state's fiscal health, and felt they couldn't afford the expensive project.

posted on Wed, 11/07/2007 - 9:05am

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