More MS news articles for Jan 2002

Stem Cell Debate Expected to Intensify

December 31, 2001
United Press International

WASHINGTON, Dec 28, 2001 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- When congressional leaders reconvene next month, they face the arduous task of clearly defining what scientists may and may not be able to do with federal dollars in the field of embryonic stem cell research.

Stem cells are unique in their ability to develop into other kinds of tissue. Many in the field believe that stems cells taken from a pre-embryo show the greatest ability to morph into other tissue and offer tremendous promise to treat a host of chronic, debilitating diseases including Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, and diabetes.

Stem cell research, however -- particularly when it involves the creation of pre-embryos -- has raised many ethical concerns. Those who oppose abortion and cloning see a stake in the debate for their issues. The debate for and against the research has drawn vehement supporters and critics to both sides.

While many who favor stem cell research supported President Bush's executive order Aug. 9 to allow federal funding for studies involving about 60 existing stem cell lines, critics question whether the order will have a chilling effect on scientific progress.

"I never understood why President Bush cut the baby in half," by permitting the research, but only on existing lines, Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., told United Press International.

One week before the order was announced, DeGette and Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., introduced the Stem Cell Research for Patient Benefit Act of 2001, which calls for supporting research using stem cells extracted from embryos and fetal tissue using research guidelines from the National Institutes of Health. Whether this legislation gains any momentum in the coming year remains to be seen, but DeGette said Bush's decision "has left a lot of unanswered questions. ...I think that in 2002, we'll be looking very closely to see if the existing stem cell lines will continue" to offer some therapeutic promise.

Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., who has co-sponsored legislation supporting stem cell research, said he would like to see stem cell studies use embryonic tissue discarded at fertility clinics to. "The scientific community feels the president's decision ties its hands behind its back," he said.

Langevin, paralyzed from the chest down from a gun accident at age 16, testified before a Senate committee on the matter last summer. "It is an intensely personal decision for me," he told UPI. "It certainly offers the hope for people with spinal cord injuries to walk again." But, he added, "by not having (more) stem cell lines for research, it will hinder research, it will slow progress."

Many legislators don't want to leap to any conclusions about stem cells and would rather wait and see what the scientists say about the therapeutic possibilities.

"I'm worried that Democrats have made this such a rallying cry, using the disabled ... as if the president is cheating them from a life-saving miracle," Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., told UPI. "I felt the President had given science a legitimate look at the research, at what it may yield. It was a great gesture. He could have said 'no' to stem cell research."

Next year will be the time to review what exactly stem cells might be capable of, Foley said. If there is evidence of solid potential therapeutic benefits, he said, Congress can consider providing carefully constructed guidelines and limitations, but not until sound science is produced.

"Most Democrats aren't scientists, and most don't have PhDs," he said. This issue will require "some degree of patience and waiting for the scientific community to come back with results."

The opposition claims the potential benefits of embryonic stem cells may have been oversold to the federal government. They are already getting geared for an intense debate in the coming year.

"In 2002, the issues are really going to be much more defined," explained Samuel Casey, executive director and chief executive officer of the Christian Legal Society in Annandale, Va. "For example, there's a tremendous difference between an embryonic stem cell and any other stem cell."

Stem cells can also be found in mature tissue though they are often hard to extract and, according to some scientists, lack the flexibility and potential of embryonic stem cells.

Adult stem cells need thorough examination of their potential, Casey said, before Congress goes enacting laws in favor of stem cell research. "They don't have the votes, they don't have the facts, they don't have the science, they don't have the popular opinion," Casey asserted.

While there is a great deal of interest in this field, scientists in favor of embryonic stem cells have the uphill battle of burden of proof and acknowledge that stem cells are not a panacea.

Questions remain about whether the existing 64 stem cells lines are viable for research and there is concern these lines lack genetic diversity.

There is also still a high risk of transplant rejection of stem cells, explained Dr. Bert Vogelstein, a professor at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Care Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Vogelstein, who testified before a Senate committee in December, said lawmakers want to give scientists the opportunity to examine therapeutic possibilities without creating a slippery slope. "From my formal and informal discussions with the senators, they were really only concerned about the patients."

One way of avoiding rejection is to clone a pre-embryo using the patient's DNA and then extracting stem cells for their treatment. But adding cloning into the already heated debate really muddles the issue. The U.S. House of Representatives banned cloning earlier this year and no one in the Senate supports human cloning.

However, some Congressional leaders are worried limitations placed on cloning could stymie other areas of research, such as somatic cell nuclear transfer, a technology involving extracting the nucleus from a patient's cells and placing it in an egg cell taken from another female to create stem cells. Some senators "were very concerned these two issues were being confused and the ban on cloning would also apply to nuclear transplantation," Vogelstein said.

Though no one was willing to forecast what sort of legislative acts would take place in the new year, it's clear the United States is competitive and wants to remain at the forefront in scientific discovery. Lawmakers feel the need to hammer out some specifics to allow research to move forward.

"What's going to happen if somebody in Germany or Japan show they can grow cardiac muscle cells or can repair a spinal cord after injury because they were allowed to utilize these approaches more freely?" said W. Dalton Dietrich, scientific director Miami Project to Cure Paralysis.

Copyright 2001 by United Press International