The Journal Editorial Report | July 15, 2005 | PBS
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briefing and opinion
July 15, 2005

Medical Wild Cards

This week, Congress grappled with the question of whether to loosen restrictions on federal money for embryonic stem-cell research, which could lead to cures for a variety of diseases -- including Parkinson's, diabetes, Alzheimer's, and cancer. The problem is that getting stem cells for research involves destroying embryos, which raises disturbing ethical issues for many Americans. Rick Karr reports.

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Embryonic stem cells are medical wild cards -- they are capable of developing into any kind of tissue in the human body. Many scientists believe the cells may hold cures for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes, spinal-cord injuries, and other debilitating conditions. They also say the cells will help them to understand the very basics of the human body. But abortion opponents and some medical ethicists say "Not so fast!" They point out that stem cells come from human embryos created at fertility clinics and, they say, even though the spare embryos are usually thrown away, it's wrong to destroy one solely for research.

There is no doubt about its humanity, says Dr. Leon Kass, chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics. "It is not a monkey. It is not a mouse. It is a human embryo. It's alive. There are lots of people who are opposed to the treatment of human life as a natural resource in which human life is destroyed."

Those beliefs led President Bush to strictly limit federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research four years ago, explaining, "Like a snowflake, each of these embryos is unique, with the unique genetic potential of an individual human being."

The president's policy limits federal funding to research on the so-called "lines" of cells that already had been extracted from embryos. Last month, the president promoted so-called "Snowflake Babies" -- born after they had been adopted as embryos -- as an alternative to using the cells for scientific research. Dr. Leon Kass, the chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, says the president's policy limiting funding on research acknowledges the deep discomfort that it stirs in some Americans and prompts foundations and investors to fund research privately.

"Federal funding is not just dollars," says Kass. "When the federal government gives money to support any kind of activity, it is pronouncing explicitly a national blessing on that activity."

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Dr. Janet Rowley, professor in the Department of Genetics at the University of Chicago and a member of the President's Council on Bioethics disagrees. "There are many things that the government does that a substantial portion of the country disapproves of and yet the government goes ahead and does it," she says. "I do think that the research has got to be reviewed scientifically for merit.

Rowley and George Daley of Children's Hospital Boston say merit has lost out to ideology. Daley says his team can use only about five percent of the space in their lab for experiments on stem cells that are not federally-approved. That's because there's not much private money available for research and the administration's rules require scientists to keep federally and privately-funded research separate.

"The institutions are extremely worried about this right now because they are worried that will be susceptible to some kind of claim that we were abusing federal funds," says Daley. "This is has an enormously chilling effect."

Biotech entrepreneurs say there's been a chilling effect on venture capitalists, too. The Massachusetts firm Advanced Cell Technology has been looking into stem-cell treatments for blindness and heart disease. Its CEO, William Caldwell, says investors, who normally are willing to take risks, are skittish because they don't know whether the federal government will further limit research.

"The one area that really would concern them is regulatory or political risk," says Caldwell. "That is something that they don't really understand. It can't be managed from their perspective; and therefore, that is a risk that they are not willing to take."

Dr. Leon Kass says scientists and entrepreneurs should "stop bellyaching" and focus on ways of doing stem-cell research without destroying embryos. "If there are morally non-problematic ways to do the same things and we could avoid a national schism on this, then we could have a federal support of this research that everybody would be thrilled with," says Kass.

In other words, use stem cells that don't come from embryos. Some researchers, for example, study stem cells from the umbilical cords of newborns.
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Bob Gonzalez is the founder and president of NewNeural, a small biotech firm near Chicago that is looking into adult stem cells. He says they are not as flexible as embryonic cells, but they show promise in treating the brain and nervous system -- and they don't raise tough questions.

"Where does life really begin? It's a philosophical question, and sometimes can be tough to answer," says Gonzalez. "What we are thankful for is we are actually avoiding having to deal with that ethical question, as we try to move our technology forward."

But scientists who question the administration's policy say there is no substitute for embryonic stem cells. As long as opponents of the research set the nation's research agenda, they argue, American scientists will be sidelined as researchers like the Korean team that recently announced a breakthrough continue to move the technology forward.

"These governments are putting enormous amounts of money into human embryonic stem-cell research because they see this as the next big breakthrough," says Dr. Janet Rowley. "They are gonna be there to capitalize on it and the rest of us won't."

Q&A Dr. Janet Rowley >