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Lawmakers want to ease stem cell research restrictions

March 8, 2004
Randall Chase
Associated Press

The Bush administration's restrictions on stem cell research are putting up a roadblock against scientific breakthroughs and leaving America at a competitive disadvantage with other countries, U.S. Rep. Michael Castle said Monday.

Castle (R-Del.) is gathering congressional support for easing the restrictions on government-funded stem cell research. He said scientists have been hampered by a lack of federal funding and an unintentionally restrictive government policy.

Stem cells are the body's building blocks, with the potential to develop into different types of cells. Scientists believe the cells, typically taken from human embryos, can be used one day to repair organs or treat diseases such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer's disease.

Because human embryos are destroyed when the stem cells are extracted, the research has extended beyond the realm of science into religion and politics.

On Aug. 9, 2001, President Bush announced that federal money would be available only for research on stem cell lines created before that date. While the National Institutes of Health identified 78 cell lines that met the restrictions, only 15 are currently available for study.

Moreover, all of the available stem cell lines are contaminated with mouse feeder cells, which limit their potential usefulness in treating humans.

Last week, Harvard researchers announced that they will give scientists free access to 17 new stem cell lines developed without government money. But researchers will not be able to use federal money to work with the cells.

"I'd like to see the stem cells that can be used in research expanded in one way or another," said Castle, who is circulating a draft letter urging the White House to expand the federal policy on embryonic stem cell research.

Joining Castle in the effort are Reps. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., Cal Dooley, D-Calif., and Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif. To date, some 70 House members have signed the letter. Castle hopes to get the signatures of at least half of his colleagues.

According to the letter, an estimated 400,000 human embryos developed through in-vitro fertilization are frozen and likely will be destroyed if not donated, with the consent of couples involved, for research.

"If they're going to be thrown out, why not use them to save the lives of others?" Castle asked.

John Gearhart, a medical professor and pioneering stem cell researcher at Johns Hopkins University, said other countries are pouring large sums of money into stem cell research, and that international consortia are establishing research groups that will be off-limits to NIH-funded scientists.

"They'll be using (cell) lines within the studies that are not on the approved list," said Gearhart, who has briefed Castle and other lawmakers on stem cell research.

"The concern here goes beyond the number of cell lines that are available," Gearhart added, noting the critical role that federal money plays in medical research and the need for diversity in stem cell lines.

In addition to having stem cells not contaminated with animal products, scientists also need to be able to clone stem cells from people with the genetic markers for various diseases, Gearhart said. Bush supports efforts in Congress to ban all human cloning, whether for reproduction or research.

"We should be working on the next generation of lines that could take us into the clinic, and we should be doing it now," Gearhart said.

Copyright © 2004, Associated Press