Stem cell dispute pulls science into political arena

Research: U.S. scientists chafe as other nations take the lead, but opponents stand firm on moral grounds.

August 15, 2004|By Erika Niedowski and David Kohn | Erika Niedowski and David Kohn,SUN STAFF

Dr. George Q. Daley sums up the impact of the three-year-old federal restrictions on stem cell research in two words: missed opportunities.

The associate professor at Harvard Medical School has shown in mice how stem cell therapy might successfully treat patients with two bone marrow disorders. But because the government won't fund his work, he says, he can't move his research forward.

"The policy, in some sense, has been a brake on the otherwise very rapid acceleration of the field," said Daley.

Outlined by President Bush in August 2001, the policy allows federal financing of embryonic stem cell research, but only using cell colonies - known as lines - created before then.

FOR THE RECORD - In an article about human embryonic stem cell research that appeared in Sunday's editions, the name of Mario R. Capecchi, a professor of human genetics and biology at the University of Utah School of Medicine, was misspelled.
The Sun regrets the error.

Since then, scientists almost universally agree, their work has been hindered. Those who have tried to obtain approved lines have been frustrated by long waits. Junior researchers have been shunning the field for other pursuits. Overseas labs have gotten a leg up on a technology that nearly everyone believes, one day at least, will revolutionize medicine.

Now, with Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry saying he would lift the restrictions if he wins in November, the issue is back in the spotlight - albeit with a predictably political spin.

"Both sides are guilty of playing with the truth on this issue," Dr. James F. Battey, head of the National Institutes of Health's Stem Cell Task Force, said of research critics and supporters.

Defenders of the administration's policy argue that the rules don't prohibit research on stem cells. Those who want to work with new embryonic lines, they say, can do so - just not with public money.

Stem cells, master cells from which all other cells derive, could eventually be used to treat or possibly cure a wide range of diseases. No one opposes that, but critics of human embryonic stem cell research say the practice is unethical.

The cells are harvested from tiny days-old embryos. Some say these embryos are viable human lives and shouldn't be destroyed for scientific research.

Others contend that the research will lead to practices such as human cloning or so-called embryo farms.

But those who want to lift the funding restrictions say that many of the embryos - most of which are created through in vitro fertilization - will be discarded anyway if not used for stem cell research.

To sidestep the federal restrictions, many scientists have pursued nonfederal financing to support their studies.

Harvard University opened a stem cell institute in March and announced the creation of 17 new cell lines. New lines are necessary, scientists say, because they are easier to work with and can be adapted to a particular researcher's needs.

New Jersey is building a $50 million stem cell center using state and private money. And in November, Californians will vote on whether to allot nearly $3 billion over 10 years to support stem cell work in the state.

But many scientists say private and state efforts can't replace federal support of the kind that the National Institutes of Health provides.

"NIH money is the engine for biomedical research in this country," said Johns Hopkins School of Medicine scientist John D. Gearhart, one of the first two researchers to isolate and grow the most basic human stem cells. "In this area, that engine is limited. And that has a major, major impact."

Biomedical companies typically rely on university researchers, supported by NIH grants, to carry out basic science research rather than conduct that bench work themselves.

"A company isn't out to learn things; they're out to make money," said Mario R. Cappechi, professor of human genetics and biology at the University of Utah School of Medicine and an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. "They normally do not do what I would call basic research."

The promise of stem cells lies in their ability to develop into any kind of cell in the body - from skin cells to eye cells to muscle cells. To that end, scientists hope to devise ways that can be used to repair damaged or diseased tissue in patients with problems such as spinal cord injuries and Parkinson's.

Researchers might learn something even more valuable: how to prevent disease in the first place. With a better understanding of the way normal, undifferentiated stem cells develop into ones with specialized jobs, scientists might determine what goes wrong along the way to cause, say, cancer.

"As soon as the science starts to really deliver on its promise, there will be the political will to change the system. There will have to be," said Daley.

Last week, in a statement designed to highlight the administration's commitment to stem cell research, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson pointed out that, under previous presidents, no federal funding was available. Bush doled out $24.8 million last year for embryonic stem cell studies, a sum Kerry has said he would increase to $100 million.

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