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Stem Cell Research and How It Has Affected the Presidential Campaign

October 11, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: President Bush and Sen. Kerry sharply disagree on whether human stem cells should be harvested from embryos for medical research. As it happens, just before Christopher Reeve’s passing, the candidates were asked about the issue during last Friday’s debate.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: Chris Reeve is a friend of mine. Chris Reeve exercises every single day to keep those muscles alive for the day when he believes he can walk again, and I want him to walk again. I think we can save lives. Now, I think we can do ethically guided embryonic stem cell research. We have 100,000 to 200,000 embryos that are frozen in nitrogen today from fertility clinics. These weren’t taken from abortion or something like that. They’re from a fertility clinic, and they’re either going to be destroyed or left frozen. And I believe if we have the option, which scientists tell us we do, of curing Parkinson’s, curing diabetes, curing, you know, some kind of a… you know, paraplegic or quadriplegic or, you know, a spinal cord injury– anything– that’s the nature of the human spirit. I think it is respecting life to reach for that cure. I think it is respecting life to do it in an ethical way. And the president has chosen a policy that makes it impossible for our scientists to do that.

GWEN IFILL: In 2001, President Bush did agree to allow research to continue on a limited number of existing stem cell colonies, also known as stem cell lines, but he opposes expanding that number.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Embryonic stem cell research requires the destruction of life to create a stem cell. I’m the first president ever to allow funding, federal funding, for embryonic stem cell research. I did so because I, too, hope that we’ll discover cures from the stem cells and from the research derived. But I think we’ve got to be very careful in balancing the ethics and the science. And so I made the decision we wouldn’t spend any more money beyond the 70 lines, 22 of which are now in action, because science is important, but so is ethics, so is balancing life. To destroy life to save life is one of the real ethical dilemmas that we face. I helped double the NIH budget to $28 billion a year to find cures. And the approach I took is one that I think is a balanced and necessary approach to balance science and the concerns for life.

GWEN IFILL: Now we take the stem cells debate a step further now with advocates on either side of the issue. Daniel Perry is the president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, a group of patient organizations, universities, and foundations. And Richard Doerflinger is the deputy director for pro-life activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Neither organization has endorsed a presidential candidate. Mr. Perry, I want to start with you and take John Kerry’s words and ask you to explain what he means when he says he favors ethically guided stem cell research.

DANIEL PERRY, Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research: Well, clearly, we want to have ethical guidelines for this kind of research. We recognize that we’re talking about some of the essence of life itself. We’re talking about pre-implantation embryos a few days old most of them left surplus in fertility clinics where they will certainly be discarded as medical waste. But, given the opportunity, parents may choose to donate those left-over embryonic… leftover fertilized eggs to medical research where they could open up vast new horizons in understanding diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and diabetes and some day potentially be replacement parts for cells that are damaged or worn out by disease or injury. We can do this ethically. We need to make sure that there is informed consent. We need to make sure that there are no excess funds being offered to encourage couples to go into IVF specifically for this purpose. The last administration was in the process of creating ethical public guidelines that the public could buy into when they lost the election and the issue went to Mr. Bush.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Doerflinger, in response we heard the president say he’s trying to balance ethics versus science. Explain to me how one does that.

RICHARD DOERFLINGER, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: Well, what he did in his policy was to say he would fund research using the stem cells, the stem cell lines that are already in existence where the embryos had already been destroyed before the date of his policy but would not use money to encourage the further destruction of embryos in the future. If you keep putting money into new cell lines, you’re encouraging researchers to keep destroying embryos.

The other ethical issue here is that Christopher Reeve and many scientists had decided a couple of years ago and had said so publicly in hearings that in order to make this really work we’re going to have to cross yet another ethical line and go into cloning embryos just for research, making embryos in a laboratory just to destroy them. I think that’s why Sen. Kerry has endorsed the major bill in Congress now that he’s co-sponsored the major bill in Congress to allow this human cloning for research purposes, so even the spare embryos are not the end of the ethical line. Many of the people who support this and Mr. Perry’s organization has taken this stand as well will require going yet further, cloning embryos for research and some people want to take it even beyond embryos into developing them to fetal humans for spare parts.

GWEN IFILL: You say there’s a slippery slope argument. For today’s debate let’s try to stick to just the argument at hand. The president said at the time in 2001 that he was going to limit research to those 70 lines he thought at the time there were probably 70 usable lines of stem cells, which were worthy of experimentation and it would be none after August of 2001 I guess it was. We now think it’s what, about 22? How many are active stem cell lines which are….

RICHARD DOERFLINGER: There are 22 that have been made into active stem cell lines. There are another 30 whose owners have not agreed to let them be used by other researchers yet. I’ve been wondering these years why some of the groups that support all this don’t work on their colleagues and get them to be a little more sharing and caring with others rather than going after the Bush administration. But there are also other stem cell samples that are still in the freezer, have not yet been turned into stem cell lines and could be in the future if more are needed.

GWEN IFILL: What is your sense of what the numbers are? What’s actually available out there right now for research?

DANIEL PERRY: Well, it was a bit of a bait-and-switch in August of 2001, the president said that there were 60 lines around the world that were available for the research. Later they upgraded that and said there were 78 at the NIH. Earlier this year, there were as few as 15 after three years of a policy where supposedly they were in the 70s, there were in fact only in the teens. Today they have found 22 lines that are available. All of these lines that were made before August of 2001 were cultured alongside mouse feeder cells in dishes. That means they were probably never be appropriate for human use because of the possibility of trans-species infection. These lines now represent old science and old technology. It’s like trying to launch an aviation program being told you have to use the Wright Brothers’ first copy.

GWEN IFILL: But based on what we know about the status of this research now there actually a shortage of stem cells for research?

DANIEL PERRY: There is a shortage of approved lines for federal funding — some 22 lines.

GWEN IFILL: How do you define shortage? There is work that’s not being done because of this?

DANIEL PERRY: Yes. There are scientists that are staying away from this field because federal funding has been limited. The private sector has created 17 more lines just from Doug Melton’s laboratory at Harvard — 17 lines that are newer, more versatile, easier for the scientists to use but no American scientist in an institution that’s getting federal funds dares use those newer, better line for fear of losing all their funding.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Doerflinger, you were shaking your head.

RICHARD DOERFLINGER: Let me say something about those newer better lines. This is the article in which they announced these newer better lines. On the first page they say we grew these in mouse feeder cells. So in that regard they’re exactly as inadequate as the existing lines. And on the last page they admit they’re already genetically abnormal. It turns out the new findings are that human embryonic stem cell lines when developed in culture tend to develop genetic abnormalities which get worse over time. They’re abnormalities most often found in humans in test particular cancer cells. This is just an example of the blame is being put in the wrong place here. The problems arising from embryonic stem cell research, the reason why these cells have never yet been used in a human patient to help anybody and may never be used in a human patient is the nature of the cells themselves; it’s not anything particularly inaccurate about the Bush cell lines.

GWEN IFILL: There’s not a silver bullet you’re saying in embryonic stem cells.

RICHARD DOERFLINGER: The disappointments have grown and grown as they’ve learned more about these cells. This was the purpose of the Bush policy was to take a set of stem cell lines and do the basic research to find out if any of it indicates a readiness to go to the next step and try to treat human beings. Yes these cell lines are inadequate for treating human beings; so are all cell lines in the world. Mr. Perry’s organization has already said to treat patients you have to go into human cloning.

GWEN IFILL: Why not adult stem cells? Why isn’t that enough?

DANIEL PERRY: More than 40 Nobel laureates have said that adult stem cells can do some things but they can’t do everything. They’re not as versatile. So far they’ve not been able to show that they can be turned into brain stem cells or spinal cord stem cells. They can do some things but only embryonic stem cells have the capacity to be… to morph into any one of 200 different cell types in the human body. The National Academy of Sciences disagrees with Mr. Doerflinger; so do 40 Nobel Laureates that believe there’s tremendous promise in embryonic stem cell research.

GWEN IFILL: And since Mr. Doerflinger has twice brought up the issue of human cloning, would you like to respond to that?

DANIEL PERRY: The same National Academy of Sciences and the same Nobel laureates have said that nuclear transfer technology, which allows you to create stem cells that are genetically identical to a particular patient, may be the… necessary in order to get the full value out of embryonic stem cells. This is the matter of taking the nucleus from a skin cell, putting it in a hollowed-out egg cell in a dish and growing it to the point where you can take stem cells out of it. It never enters a womb. Sperm and egg never meet. There’s no pregnancy and yet the opponents of this research continue to cast this in terms of these are little tiny lives. In fact, these are specks smaller than a grain of sand in which we can derive stem cells that could have vast scientific and medical benefit.

GWEN IFILL: The president has asked for this to be… the limitations which are in place have to do only with federally funded research.


GWEN IFILL: What, as far as you understand it, is the scope of privately funded research? Does it need federal imprimatur from the National Institutes of Health or someplace else in order for even the private research to go forward?

RICHARD DOERFLINGER: No. I mean, Christopher Reeve’s own foundation spent $48 million in research in spinal cord. They didn’t find anything in embryonic stem cells that’s ready for human use either. The vast majority of privately funded research is going to adult stem cells because they’re working. I have to say what Mr. Perry said about adult stem cells knots turning into spinal cord treatments is absolutely false. There are clinical trials now, they’re in Portugal, maybe because our research foundations have gotten too fixated on embryonic stem cells, there are protocols in Portugal using adult stem cells from people’s own nasal tissue that have been used to treat about a dozen spinal cord injury patients now. There was just a congressional hearing in July at which two of the American patients appeared and talked about how… one of them was quadriplegic before. And she was using her hands very freely and can now wiggle her toes and beginning to walk with braces. There are treatments emerging with private funding.

GWEN IFILL: I don’t want to go far away from the idea of private funding.

RICHARD DOERFLINGER: Private funding for embryonic as well.

GWEN IFILL: What you’re saying is this kind of practice is morally repugnant across the board why does it matter if it’s private or public funding?

RICHARD DOERFLINGER: Well, it doesn’t matter to me. I’m against it. The reality is the federal government has no laws regulating privately funded research even in adults. You could go out and, you know, kill your three-year-old for stem cells and it wouldn’t be against federal law; it would be against state law.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Perry.

DANIEL PERRY: We need to have more research in this area both from the public sector and from the private sector. What’s valuable about research funded through the National Institutes of Health is then you have public accountability for public dollars. You would have federal guidelines assuring ethical and moral principles in this. If it’s left to the private sector, we can’t even tell for sure how much is going where. They’re under no requirements to publish. They’re under no requirements to share information. They’re under no requirements to abide by ethical advisory boards. Many biotech companies have those, but not all of them. And nobody is requiring that they hew to those kinds of standards. Only when the National Institutes of Health is involved do you really get the synergy out of public and private efforts and it’s done according to public, ethical concerns.

GWEN IFILL: Daniel Perry and Richard Doerflinger, thank you both very much.