By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 3, 1998; Page A02
Inspired by promises of exciting medical advances that could come from studies of cells derived from human embryos, the Senate yesterday began a tentative reassessment of a four-year-old ban on the use of federal funds for human embryo research.
To make sure lawmakers understood the immediacy of their task, a scientist unveiled unpublished evidence at a congressional hearing, showing that he already had used the controversial technology to grow human brain cells, which may be useful for patients with Parkinson's disease.
At issue is whether a provision banning federal support for human embryo experiments should apply to research on "stem cells," a recently isolated type of cell that scientists suspect can be made to grow into replacement tissues for patients with a host of serious diseases.
In more general terms, Congress is being asked by a growing number of scientific and patient advocacy groups to loosen or repeal the ban.
Because of the peculiar nature of stem cells -- which have many of the qualities of embryo cells but, unlike embryos, cannot grow into a person -- their status with regard to that ban remains clouded, experts told the subcommittee on Labor, Health and Education, chaired by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.)
"There is a wide variety of views on the moral status of these cells," said Harold Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health. "The cells do deserve special ethical consideration," he said, because they are the offspring of cells that were taken from human embryos or fetuses. At the same time, he said, "These cells cannot be considered organisms and cannot be considered embryos."
Researchers at NIH and other federally funded laboratories are clamoring to conduct studies on the recently isolated cells, Varmus said in an interview. For now, they are being told "no," he said, and that policy will continue unless members of Congress and federal lawyers agree otherwise.
A ban on federal funding for stem cell research will slow progress toward cures, several experts told the subcommittee.
"We must seize this opportunity and allow the most sophisticated biomedical research community in the world full access to these cells and appropriate levels of support," said Thomas Okarma, a vice president at Geron Corp., a Menlo Park, Calif., biotechnology company that holds the license to commercialize stem cells.
Others warned that to restrict the research to the private sector could lead to a corporate stranglehold on the technology and a lack of public review.
"Not only will progress be slow, it will be hidden," said Arthur Caplan, a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist.
In a dramatic highlight, John Gearhart, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who led one of the three teams that reported the isolation of human stem cells last month, showed the subcommittee a poster-sized photograph of large yellow cells with spindly branching outgrowths.
"They are human," Gearhart said of the cells, "and they have the features of neurons." He grew them from human stem cells, he said, and he suspects that they are the kind of brain cells that die off in patients with Parkinson's disease.
More tests are needed to see if they might be useful if transplanted into patients' brains, he said.
Nonetheless, he said, "this goes to show the power of this technology."
But other experts argued that to allow such research would be morally corrupt and a clear violation of the federal ban.
Richard M. Doerflinger, a spokesman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, noted that the ban blocks federal funding of "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death."
Of the three teams that have reported isolating stem cells, Doerflinger said, one obtained them from human embryos that were destroyed and discarded in the process.
A second team plucked its stem cells from an embryo-like mass that began to grow after the researchers fused a human cell and a cow's egg. Michael West, president of Advanced Cell Technology of Worcester, Mass., where those cells were grown, testified that he was not sure whether that mass of cells was a human embryo or not.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said that beyond the question of embryo research ethics, he was troubled by recent efforts by West's company and two universities to win patents on human stem cells, which some people believe should be recognized as creations of nature and not subject to patents. He said he hoped to hold a separate hearing on that matter later this year.
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