Stem Cell Debate
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SUSAN DENTZER: Human stem cells hold out the potential of almost unimaginable cures for a myriad of diseases. That’s because they can develop into most of the specialized cells and tissues of the body. And that means new tissues or entire organs could one day be grown in a lab then used to treat everything from heart disease to spinal cord injuries.
DR. JOHN GEARHART, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine: Just think about it, we have a renewable cell source in a laboratory setting that we can then take at our desire to then produce a specific cell type. I mean, it’s kind of mind boggling when you think about it.
SUSAN DENTZER: In adults, stem cells can be found in some tissues and organs, such as bone marrow and the brain. But most of the excitement has focused on stem cells found in human embryos like this one that are just days old. That’s based on the as-yet unproved belief that embryonic cells alone can be made to grow into almost any other type of cell, whereas some researchers believe that adult stem cells can’t.
DR. JOHN GEARHART: As an organism develops, you have populations of cells that, and I think you can appreciate, early on have to have the ability to produce everything. After all, we do come from a single cell initially, a fertilized egg.
SUSAN DENTZER: But it’s precisely the fact that these embryonic stem cells come from human embryos that’s made this research so controversial. So after several years of debate, yesterday the National Institutes of Health issued formal guidelines spelling out the terms under which federally- funded embryonic stem cell research could proceed. The guidelines said that NIH dollars could only be used to fund research if stem cells were derived from unused frozen embryos created through fertility treatments, such as in vitro fertilization. By contrast, no NIH money could pay for research on cells that came from aborted embryos or terminated pregnancies. What’s more, NIH money itself could not be used to remove the stem cells from frozen embryos. That work would have to be funded and carried out by private companies or non- government labs. President Clinton hailed the guidelines as balancing ethical concerns with patients’ interests.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: We cannot walk away from the potential to save lives and improve lives, to help people literally get up and walk; to do all kinds of things we could never have imagined, as long as we meet rigorous ethical standards – and I’m convinced and Secretary Shalala is convinced that that has been done.
SUSAN DENTZER: But congressional critics and many right-to-life advocates bitterly disagree. They’ve vowed to continue their efforts to block federal funding of the embryonic stem cell research.
GWEN IFILL: For more on the debate over stem cell research, we’re joined by Daniel Perry, chairman of the Patient’s Coalition for Urgent Research, a patient advocacy organization in support of stem cell research; and Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. They oppose the research. Mr. Doerflinger, we just saw in Susan Dentzer’s report what all the upsides of this research are supposed to be. What are the downsides?
RICHARD DOERFLINGER: Well, the downsides of the embryonic stem cell research are, first of all, the moral issue. For the first time in federal history, U.S. History, the federal government will actually be taking a class of human beings, a form of developing human life which is what even the NHI calls these embryos, and destroying that life for the benefit of others. That’s something that crosses a very important ethical line that’s never been done in our country at any stage of fetal development. Even children who are slated for abortion cannot be singled out for federally funded research that does harm to them before the abortion because research is supposed to be always showing inherent respect for human life, even if they are tempted to take life for the sake of others. The upside of the research is, what was just said in the video about the fact that many adult stem cells may well be able to provide many of the same benefits, in some ways more promising and closer to actually treating patients so we don’t have to cross that ethical line.
GWEN IFILL: Well, Mr. Perry, why not just adult stem cell research? Why even tread into this area of embryonic study?
DANIEL PERRY: We’ve had some two decades of research on adult stem cells from bone marrow, from chord blood, placentas and so forth. And as you know, in the case of breast cancer treatments where they use transplanted bone marrow transplants, very disappointing results — even after all of these years, we have not been able to make adult stem cells replace potentially, any cell in the body. That’s the great promise of embryonic stem cells. And we should do more research in adult stem cells and find out what benefit can come from that. Patient groups would applaud that. But at the same time, we should be exploring the potential of embryonic stem cell research which we know can turn into any cell in the body. How can we tell a young woman, diabetic at age 20, we’re going to wait five years and just study adult stem cells and we may say, well that didn’t work, now we’re going to try something else — when in the meantime, she may have faced the loss of sight, amputation, kidney failure? I think it would be immoral and unconscionable to tell patients wait until first we try this avenue that so far has not proven effective.
GWEN IFILL: So we’re talking about relative morality, we’re taking about a tradeoff between what you consider to be life at its embryonic stage and what he considers to be life in terms of adults who could benefit from this research?
RICHARD DOERFLINGER: Well, that would be the dilemma if what he just said about adult stem cell research were true, but, in fact, it’s not true. Let’s take the case of diabetes. Here is a news report from your own organization, Mr. Perry: The Alliance for Aging Research. This reported on a recent use of adult stem cells, and called it the most promising sign to date that stem cell research might yield remarkable treatments for currently incurable diseases. The scientific literature is filled with these things. Just last week, the NIH and the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation funded a study that showed that stem cells from our own bone marrow can be used to make what they called a virtually unlimited supply of nerve cells for transplant to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, spinal cord injury, and other neural diseases, much more easily obtained than the embryonic stem cells, much safer because we don’t know yet how to make the embryonic stem cells stop growing into absolutely everything. That would kill a patient if you put them into the patient now.
GWEN IFILL: What the NIH tried to do yesterday was to try to draw up guidelines in which federal funds would not be used for this kinds of research. Did it succeed, or in your opinion, is this just a matter of the fact that this shouldn’t be pursued at all by private research or federal research?
RICHARD DOERFLINGER: Oh, the NIH will federally fund the stem cell research and it will tell researchers how to kill the embryos to get those stem cells for federally funded research. The semantic game they are playing is you have to use a private dollar to do the actual act of killing the embryo. Then all of the federal funds flow in. You are still promising people a reward of millions of dollars for stem cell research if they can provide you with destroyed embryos.
GWEN IFILL: Semantic games?
DANIEL PERRY: It has been two years since this breakthrough this was hailed by thee scientific community as the greatest scientific breakthrough of 1999. Many believe it is the biggest scientific breakthrough in the last decade. And yet, two years later, just now, the NIH has been able to show American scientists the guidelines that they can use so that they can pursue answers from these stem cells that could save so many lives, and can do it in an ethical and moral manner.
GWEN IFILL: What’s to stop a scientist from creating embryos precisely and only for research, and what would be wrong with that?
DANIEL PERRY: Well, the guidelines would not allow federal funding for that. The guidelines say specifically they can only do research on stem cells that come from embryos left over in fertility clinics, frozen and liquid nitrogen, destined to be discarded unless they can be donated for potential good through scientific research. Those guidelines are very strict. They create four different layers of regulatory hurdles and they are meant to bring the American public in support of this, which I believe it will do. I think any fair-minded person looking at these guidelines will realize we’re not going to create a black market in embryos. We’re not going to pay people for embryos. We’re not going to allow them to donate embryos so that someone in their family gets a benefit — this can only be donated to science in a way that the entire scientific community can engage in the research with public funding and with public oversight. And that’s critical. We have always been able to do this research in private biotechnology companies that have a commercial goal, and I don’t disparage that, but the best way…
RICHARD DOERFLINGER: They are all the members of your board of directors. You better not disparage that.
DANIEL PERRY: The best way to get answers for basic scientific questions, turn it over to the academic scientific researchers.
RICHARD DOERFLINGER: This is nonsense. The federal funds go to commercial interests as well. In fact the academic researchers were funded and are working very closely with the profit-making pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies which is Mr. Perry knows very well because their CEO’s are a major part of his board of directors. This is ridiculous to say there’s no profit motive. If you say here, I’ll give you a million dollars for stem cell research if you can just go out and kill embryos in a certain way with a certain informed consent process to provide these stem cells and you come back and say, but we’re not promoting you to kill those embryos, you are lying; you’re being a hypocrite.
GWEN IFILL: So you are convinced that that’s what will happen here.
RICHARD DOERFLINGER: That’s exactly what is laid out in the guidelines. That’s not the slippery slopes of the future. That’s what they are designed to do right now. Now, what happens down in the future is another matter because as Ron McKy of the NIH said yesterday on National Public Radio, these guidelines are just the first step. This is an incremental process. We need to get people used to this first, and then we go down the road to specially creating embryos for research, to cloning. The British have already moved on to cloning embryos and then killing them specifically for research, having decided that’s actually the only way using the embryonic cells you are actually going to get genetically matched transplants that won’t be rejected by foreign tissue. That will be the next step here too.
GWEN IFILL: So if we are already on the slippery slope you are talking about, what do you do at this point when the argument is being made we have the cures for Parkinson’s; we have cures for Lou Gehrig’s, if only you’ll let us do the research — how do you stop that?
RICHARD DOERFLINGER: I think the reasonable compromise would be this: The adult stem cell stuff that’s now coming forward is far closer to actually being tried for clinical treatment in humans. Some of it is already curing diseases in humans, including the use of stem cells and gene therapy to cure immunological diseases. Let’s give it six months; let’s give it a year. Let’s pour federal money, something that we can all agree on, into the adult stem cell research and see if its new promise works out and then we’ll know if we even he need to broach this ethically controversial line.
GWEN IFILL: And, Mr. Perry, is there any way you can make this sale to Congress? As you know, there are some very powerful members of Congress who are already saying that they’re going to try to stop this?
DANIEL PERRY: I think in the last two years the more that members of Congress have heard from patients, from families, from every-day Americans, yearning for answers to such devastating conditions as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and so on. Weighing the issues, i think we’re getting more leadership in Congress that is saying we fund biomedical research so we can cure diseases. We don’t do it to keep scientists in full employment. We have the biggest breakthrough in decades. It is time to move that closer to cures, and to save lives. We have very conservative as well as liberal members of Congress, Republicans, Democrats — those with very strong pro-choice record as well as those with a strong pro-life record – that are supporting stem cell development. I think things look very bright for bipartisan support for research for the benefit of patients.
GWEN IFILL: That will have to be the last word. Mr. Perry, Mr. Doerflinger, thank you both for joining us.