2:00 a.m. March 11, 2002 PST
By Kristen Philipkoski
PALO ALTO, California -- Good news for those fighting for the right to continue stem cell research came Friday with the lift of a mouse's tail.
A video clip of a mouse -- apparently recovered from a spinal cord injury -- was shown at a California State Senate hearing and spoke well of the viability of stem cell research. Also speaking on behalf of the research were a number of disabled people, putting human faces on the pleas for more research.
"Those who would ban such research must take responsibility for those patients whose lives could have been saved," said Dr. Irving Weissman, chair of the panel on scientific and medical aspects of human cloning at the National Academy of Sciences and a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
The research involving the mouse was conducted by Dr. Hans Keirstead, a professor at the University of California at Irvine College of Medicine and a neurobiologist at the Reeve-Irvine Research Center.
Keirstead first showed a video clip of a mouse dragging its feet behind it and unable to lift its tail, modeling a spinal cord injury.
In the next clip the mouse could lift its tail high and could bear its own weight and move about, albeit awkwardly. Keirstead reported that the eight mice successfully treated this way also regained their bladder and bowel functions.
Keirstead and his colleagues had injected the mouse with human embryonic stem cells, which are usually derived from embryos discarded at in vitro fertilization clinics. People who believe that life begins when an embryo is created, even if it's not implanted in a womb, are opposed to such stem cell research.
Stem cells can also be derived from adult bone marrow, skin, from placentas and other organs. But many researchers believe that embryonic stem cells are more powerful. Regardless, they want to be able to do research to determine which cells might really work.
"Stem cells could be to health care what the jet engine was to the airlines," Keirstead said.
The results were impressive, especially to the many victims of spinal cord injuries and Parkinson's disease who attended and testified at the hearing and told heart-wrenching stories of how their lives have changed since their accidents or the onset of their disease.
"I had to get up at 3 a.m. to get here (by 9:30 a.m.) today," said Karen Meyer, who was paralyzed from the neck down following a car accident, because it takes three hours for her to empty her bowels each morning and night.
Meyer and others incapacitated by disease or injury pleaded for officials not to limit the research they believe is their only hope.
Researchers who want to proceed with stem cell research also testified.
California State Senator Deborah Ortiz, chair of the California Senate Committee on Health and Services, held the hearing to address a bill she has written (SB 1272), which would ensure that research in California involving human embryonic stem cells can proceed with few restrictions.
Keirstead's research adds to a growing body of evidence that stem cell research could one day treat victims of spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's.
Dr. John Gearhart, a stem cell researcher at Johns Hopkins University, achieved similarly striking results with mice last year.
Gearhart used stem cells taken from voluntarily aborted fetuses, while Keirstead used stem cells obtained from Geron Corporation, which were collected from in vitro fertilization clinics and would have otherwise been discarded.
President Bush announced on Aug. 9, 2001 that he would limit federal funding of embryonic stem cell research to the 60 lines he said already existed at the time of his announcement. That number was later reduced to around 40, and many believe it is even lower.
Stem cells can replicate themselves indefinitely, and millions of stem cells can be derived from just one embryo, creating one stem cell line. In the lines that have already been derived, "the life/death decision has already been made," said Bush, at the time of his announcement.
The Ortiz bill would establish permits in California to allow researchers to derive more stem cell lines.
Keirstead's results must be repeated, and duplicated by another lab, before his team can approach the FDA with a proposal for a study in humans. But he believes he'll be ready to do so in about a year "if all goes well," he said, after the hearing.
The hearing came just a few days after a U.S. Senate hearing on a related topic: human cloning.
Researchers at both hearings expressed outrage and frustration that human reproductive cloning is lumped as the same issue as cloning performed for research purposes.
The U.S. House of Representatives has already approved one bill (H.R. 2505) that would criminalize "therapeutic" cloning as well as reproductive cloning. It is expected to go to the Senate floor in late March or early April.
Therapeutic cloning refers to the process of creating a cloned embryo of a patient and harvesting stem cells from it, which some scientists believe would eliminate biological rejection that could occur by transplanting stem cells from a mismatched donor.
Therapeutic cloning is also used by researchers to study the beginnings of disease. By creating a cloned embryo of a patient with, say, Parkinson's disease, researchers can study the very early phases of the disease.
"There is no substitute for being able to go to the hospital and make
an embryonic stem cell line to study that disease," Weissman said.
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