More MS news articles for August 1999

AAAS study calls for federal funding for stem cell research but sees no need for new oversight mechanisms

Says funding should be withheld for the isolation of stem cells

Contact: Lynn Fleetwood
American Association for the Advancement of Science

Washington, DC (August 18, 1999)-- A preliminary study released today by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Institute for Civil Society (ICS) supports federal funding for research involving existing human stem cells, but says the derivation of human stem cells should not at present receive federal funding because of public anxiety surrounding it. The study also says no new mechanism is needed to regulate stem cell research because adequate systems and policies are already in place for governing such research.

The study states that federal funding should be used for research on human stem cells-- including embryonic stem cells that have already been isolated in laboratories-- but that there is enough public concern about the process of deriving stem cells that it should not receive federal funding.

According to Mark Frankel, director of AAAS's Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program , "The problem arises regarding the source of stem cells" such as aborted fetuses or embryos frozen for fertility purposes, which are viewed by some as potential human life." Nevertheless, there is already sufficient material gathered by researchers not using federal funding that this exclusion will not have a negative impact on research, the study says.

The study was conducted over the last several months with the advice of a working group, composed of scientists, lawyers, ethicists and representatives from several religious faiths. From this effort, a number of draft recommendations were developed for conducting stem cell research, covering such issues as public education, procedures for stem cell isolation, human subjects protection and research guidelines. A final report will be released at the end of September.

AAAS and ICS will sponsor a public meeting on August 25 with representatives from government, industry and the scientific, legal and religious communities to review the draft and discuss the implications of stem cell research. The meeting will be held at 9:00 a.m. that day at AAAS headquarters on 1200 New York Avenue. This is another in a series of forums convened by AAAS to promote continued dialogue on emerging scientific advances that affect the public, including cloning and genetically modified foods.

Federal funding of stem cell research is crucial, the study declares, so that the benefits of the research can be realized sooner for the treatment of serious diseases, including degenerative diseases and cancer. Human stem cells-- precursor cells that can give rise to multiple tissue types-- include embryonic stem (ES) cells , embryonic germ (EG) cells , and adult stem cells . For years, hematopoietic stem cells (which eventually produce blood) have been transplanted following cancer treatments. More recent experiments have included transplanting fetal tissue into the brains of Parkinson's patients.

Stem cell research, however, has precipitated considerable controversy, both because of the sources of some of the cells and its potential uses . Some opponents believe that it would be unethical to destroy human embryos to isolate the stem cells, while others are concerned about the possible use of stem cells for generating human tissues and organs and potentially for human cloning.

These concerns, however, need not exclude federally funded research activities on stem cell lines that have already been established, the study says. Federal funding of stem cell research would also offer a basis for public approval through well-established oversight mechanisms and would help guarantee that the results of stem cell research would reflect broad social priorities, according to the study.

"Any innovative research or new technology will raise concerns, and the government should be prepared to address them," Frankel said. "Issues related to stem cell research can be addressed by existing policies."

Federal regulatory mechanisms now provide a sufficient framework for the oversight of human stem cell research, and it is important not to create unnecessary oversight mechanisms or regulatory burdens, the study says. The Food and Drug Administration, for example, has the authority to regulate the development and use of human stem cells that will be used as biological products, drugs or medical devises to diagnose, treat or cure a disease or underlying condition. The ethical and policy issues associated with stem cell research are currently also under review by such organizations as the National Bioethics Advisory Commission and the National Institutes of Health .

The study contends that the derivation of human stem cells can be done in an ethical manner. Embryonic cells can be collected by using embryos remaining from infertility procedures after the embryo's progenitors have decided they do not wish to preserve them and have given full and informed consent for the use of these embryos for research purposes.

The study also recommends that intellectual property regimes for stem cell research set conditions that do not restrain basic research or encumber future product development. The study urges, among other things, that a strong research exemption be adopted that would give third parties reasonable access to stem cell products and research tools for research purposes.

AAAS, the world's largest federation of scientists, works to advance science for human well-being through its projects, programs and publications. With more than 146,000 members and 282 affiliated societies, AAAS conducts many programs in the areas of science policy, science education and international scientific cooperation. AAAS publishes the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Science, as well as a number of electronic features on the World Wide Web.

Definitions :

Benefits : One of the most exciting potential uses for stem cells is providing a renewable source of cells for tissue transplantation and gene therapies. Scientists have speculated that patients with neurodegenerative disorders, diabetes, spinal cord injuries, and blood disorders may someday benefit from tissue transplantation therapies using cultivated stem cells. Conceivably, scientists may be able to engineer these cells so as not to provoke the patient's immune system. Currently, a major obstacle in organ transplants, for example, is that the patient's immune system rejects the donated tissue.

Embryonic Stem Cells : These cells are "blank slates" for virtually every type of human tissue. They are taken from a human embryo several days after fertilization. At this stage, the embryo is a ball of cells that is hollow except for a cluster of stem cells at one end. As an embryo develops, the stem cells divide and differentiate into almost all of the body's tissues, such as muscle, bone, blood, etc. In November 1998 , a team of scientists reported that they had finally managed to grow human embryonic stem cells in the lab. These cells then gave rise to groups of cartilage, bone, muscle, neural, and gut cells. Because embryonic stem cells can divide indefinitely, they may someday provide a constant supply of tissue to be used for transplants or to replace cells damaged by diseases such as diabetes or Parkinson's disease.

Embryonic Germ Cells : Embryonic germ cells come from fetal tissue that is somewhat further along in the development process. They are a specific set of embryonic cells that ultimately give rise to sperm or eggs if the embryo continues to develop. In the lab, embryonic germ cells also seem to be capable of differentiating into a variety of cell types in addition to sperm or eggs. In a second study published last November, scientists reported cultivating human embryonic germ cells for the first time. The cells came from the developing gonads (sperm or egg producing organs) of fetuses, and behaved in a similar way as the embryonic stem cells that scientists had also isolated around the same time.

Adult Stem Cells : Adult stem cells supply new cells to parts of the body with high cellular turnover rates, such as the skin, the nervous system, or the hematopoietic (blood and lymph) system. Adult stem cells are more specialized than embryonic stem or germ cells, and may therefore not be as versatile for therapeutic treatments. However, scientists have recently discovered that, in some cases, these cells can revert to a "blank," or unspecialized, state that appears to be similar to that of the embryonic stem cells. These adult stem cells can then re-program themselves and specialize as a completely different type of stem cell. Neural stem cells from the brain, for example, can be introduced into the bone marrow, where they undergo an identity switch and begin producing blood cells. Research using adult stem cells does not pose the same ethical questions that research using embryonic stem or germ cells does.

Sources : Although they come from an embryo, stem cells are fundamentally different from an embryo, because alone they cannot develop into a human organism. The U.S. government currently prohibits federal funding for research in which human embryos are destroyed. However, enough cells have already been cultivated so that federally funded scientists can continue their research without using any more embryos. These cells have come from extra embryos created through in vitro fertilization procedures at private fertility clinics. Patients at these clinics have given their informed consent, allowing their extra embryos-- initially created for fertility treatment-- to be used in stem cell research.

Potential Uses : Some critics of stem cell research have expressed concern over the possibility that scientists may apply their newfound knowledge about stem cells towards genetically engineering humans in undesirable ways. Using mice, scientists are already able to inject genetically engineered embryonic stem cells into an embryo. The result is a "chimera," an animal that develops from two embryos merged into one (which technically has four genetic parents). Some critics fear that scientists may someday use this technique to alter an individual's traits in ways society generally considers unethical. It may also someday be possible to alter an individual's germ cells so that the altered traits would be inherited by future generations, not just confined to the particular patient who was originally treated.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Media interested in copies of the draft report may contact Lynn Fleetwood at 202-326-6434 or go to AAAS's Web site at