More MS news articles for July 2001

Give us a miracle

Britain's more liberal attitude to embryo experiments is luring US scientists seeking a medical holy grail, writes Sarah Baxter

July 22 2001

Last week, in a reversal of the usual brain drain, it was announced that Dr Roger Pederson of the University of California, San Francisco, was moving to Cambridge University, where he will carry out stem cell research at Addenbrooke's hospital. "I am not a hero leading the charge," he said. "I am just trying to get some work done. I am flowing like water towards an opportunity to do that without a lot of distractions."

Pederson's scientific work in America had been privately funded, but in a punitive move the federal government ruled that his use of university lighting, electricity and secretaries was an abuse of public money and the university was forced to pull out of the programme. Most private laboratories receive some federal funding and could soon find themselves in the same position.

Pederson's move points up the fact that Britain now appears to be one of the leading countries in the world for the funding - and legislation - of stem cell research, which offers hope of a "wonder cure" for an array of illnesses from diabetes and strokes to incurable, degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis.

The microscopic clusters of 40 or so cells that make up the days-old human embryo - so tiny that it can fit on the tip of a needle - have been found by scientists to be astonishingly versatile; they are "magic seeds" that can be coaxed into replicating almost any kind of tissue. Islet cells could do away with a diabetic's need for insulin injections; nerve cells could be used to treat brains ravaged by Alzheimer's and allow victims of spinal cord injuries to walk again. Perhaps, in future, there need be no agonising wait for kidney or liver transplant donors - if an organ packs up, stem cells could help a new one to grow.

Scientists foresee a dazzling new era of medicine in which the butchery of surgery is replaced by the miracle of regeneration. It is not Frankenstein medicine - no blue-eyed, blonde "designer" babies are being created - the cause is wholly admirable. The problem is that potential life, the future life of the human embryo, is killed by research - a serious obstacle in the argument for its funding.

George W Bush faces one of the most difficult decisions of his presidency when he returns home this week from Europe. During the presidential election campaign he announced that he would ban all federal funding into stem cell research. It was his way of signalling to the influential pro-life, anti-abortion lobby that he was on their side. Now that highly organised, vocal group expects him to keep his promise, even if it is at the expense of the sick and vulnerable.

The in vitro fertilisation boom of the past decade has led to an abundance of "spare" embryos, only some of which may one day be implanted in a mother's womb. Michael J Fox, the Hollywood actor who has Parkinson's disease, insists: "It's not an abortion issue. There are tens of thousands of cells sitting in trays waiting to be destroyed. Nobody's talking about creating life in order to destroy it." In a carefully aimed barb at the anti-abortion lobby, Fox points out that it is the suffering - "patients and families of patients" - who support stem cell research.

The comedian Mary Tyler Moore, who nearly lost her foot to diabetes, has joined the cause. So has Christopher Reeve, the paralysed star of Superman, who believes stem cells represent the best hope of getting his inert body to work. Nancy Reagan has told the Bush White House that while it is too late to cure her husband of Alzheimer's she would like others to be offered that chance.

Adding to the pressure are drugs companies that are afraid America will lose its competitive edge. Since December last year, when MPs voted by 366 to 174 to allow experimentation on embryos, Britain is quietly turning into one of the world's centres of excellence for stem cell research. Scientists here talk excitedly of trials on humans taking place in the next three to five years.

In Britain, Pederson believes that he can count on greater sympathy from the public. Abortion is not such a hot issue and the pro-life lobby lacks political muscle. When parliament debated the issue, opponents concentrated their fire on the far more nightmarish prospect of cloning human beings. Their target was so-called "therapeutic cloning": the bill, passed in January, enables scientists to clone embryos up to 14 days old and experiment on them in order to create the spare tissue needed to cure disease.

"We are dealing with something that touches life at its very source," protested Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor at the time. "Are we going to allow practices which diminish our humanity?"

Even Baroness Warnock, a controversial champion of euthanasia and reluctant supporter of stem cell research, said: "The word cloning sends shivers of horror down the spines of the British public. I think we have been bullied and pushed to do things more quickly than we should, and I deplore that."

News last week that a private research centre in Massachusetts is trying to create cloned embryos provoked a similar degree of revulsion in America. The announcement by a Virginia laboratory that it was mixing sperm and eggs and creating embryos solely for the purpose of stem cell research added to the sense of outrage.

These practices are certain to be barred from federal funding. Making use of embryos discarded after fertility treatment is one thing, creating embryos only to "murder" them seems a far more cynical exercise.

Yet women who have stored their eggs and men who have frozen their sperm in advance of cancer treatment, or created spare embryos as a result of IVF, are only too happy to give something back to science in either form.

The distinction may simply be one of public perception. Anti-abortion Roman Catholics in Washington argue that a frozen embryo stored in a clinic is not the same as a "foetus developing in a womb".

Even this may be a step too far for Bush. Torn between the desire not to renege on his campaign promises and the need for compassion, he may decide on a compromise which will satisfy few people. He is thought to favour restricting federally financed research to a small number of existing "cell lines" that have already been drawn from embryos and are now replicating in laboratory dishes. Scientists are divided over whether they will be enough to provide any medical breakthrough.

The magical properties of the stem cells are a powerful attraction. All that remains to be proved is that they really are a miracle cure.

Copyright 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd.