Votes back use of adult stem cells

Bush to OK easier access to umbilical tissue

December 20, 2005|By JONATHAN D. ROCKOFF | JONATHAN D. ROCKOFF,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- While putting off consideration of a controversial measure on embryonic stem cells, Congress has passed a separate measure to further the use of adult stem cells from umbilical cords.

The legislation would make it easier for patients and researchers to access stem cells derived from umbilical cords by establishing blood banks to store the cells across the country and a national registry to track the supply.

President Bush is expected to sign it into law today. The measure was approved without opposition by the Senate on Friday night and by the House on Saturday.

"We will now be able to turn medical waste - umbilical cords and placentas - into medical miracles for huge numbers of very sick and terminally ill patients," Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican who pushed the measure, said in a statement.

Cord blood cells are different from embryonic stem cells, but they have been caught up in the controversy surrounding federal funding of research into the embryonic cells.

Embryonic stem cells are believed to hold promise in treating many diseases because they can turn into any kind of cell in the body. But embryos are destroyed in the process, so opponents of abortion and some religious conservatives have opposed the research.

These opponents have presented the study of cord blood cells as a more ethical but equally useful substitute to embryonic stem cell research.

Many researchers say that isn't the case. Cord blood cells can't turn into all of the body's cell types as embryonic stem cells can, so their greatest potential lies in treating blood diseases.

Dr. John D. Gearhart, a stem cell pioneer who directs the stem-cell program at the Johns Hopkins University, said cord blood cells "should be explored" but not at the expense of embryonic stem cell research.

"You could get a variety of cell types out of" cord blood cells, he said, "but nowhere near what you could get out of embryonic stem cells."

President Bush has restricted federal funding of embryonic stem cell research to lines of cells that existed before he announced the ban in 2001.

Sean Tipton, a spokesman for an association of research institutions and patient groups supporting embryonic stem cell research, expressed hope that Congress would soon take up a contentious proposal to increase federal funding for the research.

"We do worry that some politicians will try to fool the public and use adult stem cells as a substitute for embryonic stem cells when scientifically they're not," said Tipton, of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research.

During debate, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist overcame such concerns by pledging to consider raising federal funding of embryonic stem cell research early next year.

"When we bring it up next year and debate it, it will be crystal clear who supports medical research and who does not," Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, said on the Senate floor. "The question will be very simple: Are my colleagues for stem cell research or are they not?"

jonathan.rockoff@baltsun.com

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