Star Tribune Company- May 21, 2001
Ten-year-old Timothy Garvey of Edina deftly summarizes the reason President Bush may refuse to finance research on cells taken from human embryos: "He is saying you are taking these parts from a living being."
But in his next breath, Timothy wonders why that would be harmful if the embryos would be destroyed anyway and their cells could help cure diseases -- such as the diabetes that forces him to give himself six insulin shots a day.
With Bush's decision expected in a few weeks, the Garvey family and other Minnesotans who have a stake in the research are bombarding the White House with pleas to consider the good that could come from the studies.
From the other side, workers in the St. Paul office of the Human Life Alliance are pressuring Bush to squelch the funding. "I don't think there is a newsletter that goes out of this place that doesn't have an article opposing this type of research," said Marlene Reid, president of the alliance.
The University of Minnesota, trapped in the middle of the debate, has shelved plans to study cells from human embryos this year. Instead, its researchers are focusing on mouse cells until the political climate stabilizes, said Dr. Catherine Verfaillie, who leads the university's Stem Cell Institute.
Scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison isolated human stem cells in 1998 using embryos that a fertility clinic would have discarded. The stem cells are often called master cells because in an embryo their job is to create all the types of tissue that make up a fully formed baby.
A congressional ban on federal funding for research that destroys human embryos has blocked studies of the cells at research institutions. To violate the ban would be to jeopardize all of a university's federal funding, and the government pays for the vast majority of medical research.
In August, the Clinton administration tried to bypass the ban, saying the government could pay for studies of cells after they had been extracted from embryos in private laboratories. But Bush, on the campaign trail, expressed support for the beliefs of groups that were gearing up to fight that decision.
Amid speculation that Bush will reverse the Clinton policy, only three research teams have applied to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for approval to conduct the research. Even those requests have been in limbo since April, when the Bush administration postponed the first meeting of the NIH panel that was to review the applications.
Hope for old cells
The excitement over the research is because many diseases are caused by the loss or malfunction of certain cells.
Timothy Garvey was 3 years old when he first tried to explain how cells can fail and cause diabetes. Asked to draw a picture of himself, he sketched a pancreas with a war going on inside. Little men representing his own immune system were attacking "islet" cells that produce insulin, the hormone a body needs to process food.
The result, he said this week: "I have crippled islet cells that aren't able to produce insulin."
No one knows why an immune system would turn on its own body's cells. Genes can be a factor, but they aren't the direct cause. A leading theory is that the immune system mistakenly attacks the islet cells while battling a virus.
Whatever the cause, it happens so often that more than 1 million Americans, most of them children and young adults, have Type 1 diabetes and must live with a routine like Timothy's: Eight times a day, he stabs an already bruised pinkie to check his blood sugar level. Six times a day, he gives himself insulin shots. And he must always carry a kit that someone else could use to save his life should he lose consciousness.
Recent breakthroughs in transplanting islet cells from organ donors stirred hope for curing Type 1 diabetes. But the delicate cells are so hard to extract from a donor's pancreas that it can take several donors to treat one patient.
Because stem cells give rise to every other cell in the body, scientists predict that they can be coaxed into making islet cells for the pancreas. That hope soared in April when researchers at the NIH reported using stem cells from mouse embryos to grow pancreatic-type cells that secrete insulin.
Timothy's parents, Jenifer and Dr. Tim Garvey, firmly believe that the research could help cure their son within about a decade. "Our goal is to keep him as healthy as possible until the cure comes," said Dr. Tim Garvey, a professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Minnesota.
The recent studies are lending momentum to campaigns by the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and groups representing patients with other cellular disorders to convince Bush to allow the financing of stem cell research. Some Minnesota children with diabetes will serve as couriers in the lobbying effort by carrying letters from the Garveys and other families to Washington, D.C., in June.
But Bush is hearing intense arguments from the other side, too. The issue has found a place alongside abortion as a major cause for groups holding that life begins at conception.
Denouncing the research as "killing embryonic children," the American Life League, based in Virginia, in April attacked Tommy Thompson, secretary of health and human services, for having supported stem cell studies while he was governor of Wisconsin. A coalition led by the Christian Medical Association in Tennessee and Nightlight Christian Adoptions in California has sued Thompson and the NIH in federal court to block the funding.
And the Human Life Alliance of St. Paul is one of hundreds of groups nationwide rallying forces for the lobbying campaign.
The promise of curing diabetes and other diseases doesn't justify destruction of an embryo, which is nothing short of murder, says the alliance's Reid and others.
"Our mission is to do everything we can to protect life from conception to natural death," Reid said.
She stresses a point that Bush did during his election campaign: Certain adult cells also hold remarkable regenerative power, and scientists should focus on them, not those of embryos.
Specialized stem cells are found in many parts of the body -- in the skin, for example, where they work to heal a scratch or replenish the surface when cells flake away.
In University of Minnesota laboratories, Verfaillie has coaxed cells from adult bone marrow into mimicking heart muscle, liver tissue and even brain cells.
Reid's office publishes summaries of such studies in newsletters that go to more than 5,000 readers. "Scientists have a lot of alternatives," she said. "Let them use stem cells from these other sources."
Advocates for allowing the federal funding insist that there are important differences between adult and embryonic stem cells. Those taken from embryos grow infinitely in the laboratory and produce every type of tissue, said Douglas Melton, chairman of Harvard University's Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. The adult cells eventually die in laboratories and are more limited in what they can do.
The Garvey family takes a more pragmatic view of the tradeoff. No matter which side is taken in the ethical debate, the reality is that private fertility clinics already create and destroy embryos in the United States. That will continue no matter what Bush decides, Dr. Tim Garvey argues.
"If those embryos exist and they are going to be wasted, that's a shame," he said.
-- Sharon Schmickle
is at email@example.com .
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