PAUL GIGOT: 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. We begin with a briefing from correspondent Rick Karr.
RICK KARR: Embryonic stem cells are medical wild cards. they're 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....
GEORGE DALEY, M.D., Ph.D. (Children's Hospital Boston): Those first few days of development, those first few days of life, those are incredibly important to understand.
RICK KARR: 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.
LEON KASS, M.D., Ph.D., (Chairman, President's Council on Bioethics): There is no doubt about its humanity. It's not a monkey. It's not a mouse. It's 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.
RICK KARR: Those beliefs led President Bush to strictly limit federal funding for embryonic stem cell research four years ago:
PRESIDENT BUSH, (August 9, 2001): Like a snowflake, each of these embryos is unique, with the unique genetic potential of an individual human being.
RICK KARR: 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'd been adopted as embryos -- as an alternative to using the cells for scientific research.
PRESIDENT BUSH: These lives are not raw material to be exploited, but gifts.
RICK KARR: 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.
LEON KASS: Federal funding is not just dollars. When the federal government gives money to support any kind of activity, it is pronouncing explicitly the national blessing on that activity.
JANET ROWLEY, M.D., (Professor, University of Chicago): 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. I do think that the research has got to be reviewed scientifically for merit.
RICK KARR: Janet Rowley -- who's a member of the President's Council on Bioethics -- and George Daley of Children's Hospital Boston, say merit has lost out to ideology.
GEORGE DALEY, M.D., Ph.D., (Children's Hospital Boston): The nature of science is that you take the brightest young people, and you give them creative expression to take the science into the most exciting directions. It's enormously frustrating for my people to have to say, oh, wouldn't this be a great experiment to do? We'd learn an enormous amount about this disease. Or ... and then to say, oh, you know what? We can't work with those cells. We can't do that.
RICK KARR: Daley says his team can only use 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.
GEORGE DALEY: The institutions are extremely worried about this right now. Because they're worried that we'll be susceptible to some kind of claim that we were abusing federal funds. This is -- has an enormously chilling effect.
RICK KARR: 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 are normally willing to take risks, are skittish because they don't know whether the federal government will further limit research.
WILLIAM CALDWELL, (Advance Cell Technology, CEO): The one area that really would concern them is regulatory or political risk. That is something that they don't really understand. It can't be managed from their perspective, and therefore that's a risk that they're not willing to take.
RICK KARR: Leon Kass says scientists and entrepreneurs should "stop bellyaching" and focus on ways of doing stem cell research without destroying embryos.
LEON KASS: 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.
RICK KARR: 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.
Bob Gonzalez runs a small biotech firm near Chicago that's looking into adult stem cells. He says they're not as flexible as embryonic cells, but they show promise in treating the brain and nervous system ... and they don't raise tough questions.
BOB GONZALEZ, (NEWNEURAL, CEO, President and Founder): Where does life really begin? It's a-- it's a philosophical question, and you know, sometimes it can be tough to answer. And what we're thankful for is we're actually avoiding having to deal with that ethical question, as we try to move our technology forward.
RICK KARR: But scientists who question the Administration's policy say there's no substitute for embryonic stem cells. As long as opponents of the research set the 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.
JANET ROWLEY: These governments are putting enormous amounts of money into human embryonic stem cell research because they see this as the next big breakthrough. And they're going to be there to capitalize on it. And the rest of us won't.
PAUL GIGOT: Joining us to discuss all this is Dr. Asa Abeliovich of the Columbia University Medical Center, who is working with embryonic stem cells and Parkinson's disease.
Doctor, welcome to the program.
ASA ABELIOVICH: Thanks.
PAUL GIGOT: Good to have you here. Four years ago when the president laid out his policy, a lot of eminent scientists, including many I talked to, said that that was a good start. What we knew then about the science allowed scientists to do what they needed to do. Four years later, you work the lines the president said we could fund.
What's changed in the science that makes you think that maybe we need to change the policy?
ASA ABELIOVICH: Well I think it was a good idea four years ago, and the cells that we have been working with have helped us a lot in terms of getting started. But now there are others cells out there that have been made in the interim, and those cells are better in a lot of technical ways. They're cleaner, and also they're more diverse. And some of them really hold a lot of promises, as even disease models. They're obtained from patients that have disorders. So the new cells that are out there are really exciting for us to try to work with.
And it would be especially important, now that we've made some headway, to try to get additional cells. And so we really would like to move things forward.
PAUL GIGOT: So the fact that you're working personally on the cell lines from four years ago, that were approved four years ago, makes you believe that you're working on actually cell lines that aren't as good, aren't as high quality as the ones for scientific purposes. Those are the ones that you could use now if others were funded.
ASA ABELIOVICH: Right. Those are great for getting started, but they have their limitations, and so it's really important that we at some point get ahead of newer cell lines. We work on Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, and we're optimistic that cell therapies are really a way that we might be able to treat these disorders. But we're not going to be able to do it with the existing cell lines, that's for sure.
PAUL GIGOT: What about the contrast with adult stem cells? Do those hold the same promise as embryonic?
ASA ABELIOVICH: Well, as we just heard, adult stem cells have less flexibility. So they do hold some promise, definitely. In my lab I worked some with adult stem cells for brain disorders like Parkinson's Disease. But right now we're most excited about the flexibilities that embryonic stem cells hold. And from a scientific point of view they're particularly useful and interesting for us to study. So we can make headway in both directions, and that's how we want to go forward.
PAUL GIGOT: Kim, the real issue here, moral issue, that a lot of people have is the destruction of the embryo. And there are some new scientific techniques that are being developed that would allow people to develop embryonic stem cells without destroying an embryo, using different creative techniques. One's called cell fusion for example. Talk about that a little bit.
KIM STRASSEL: Yeah, the President's Council on Bioethics just came out with a report on this. They talked about four different ways that you could go ahead and do this. I mean, we're way off from actually seeing if they would work. But behind this is the makings of a potential Congressional compromise, I would like to think, in that at the moment the House has passed a bill that the Senate is going to vote on soon, that would loosen the restrictions from 2001. The president has said he will veto it, and I don't think there's any doubt he could probably sustain that veto.
But what the compromise is about would be instead saying let's devote some money to seeing if we could actually come up with these techniques, use these, so that we didn't have this sort of very emotional debate that really is about kind of offending a lot of people out there and their sensibilities.
PAUL GIGOT: Given the moral contentiousness that surrounds the destruction embryos -- it's a fact of political life frankly that all of us have to deal with -- what about this idea of waiting to develop these alternative techniques?
ASA ABELIOVICH: Well, I think some of them really could be quite promising, and so I think definitely it's important to go forward with some of those. But right now we are excited about using the embryonic stem cells that have been made, and it's important to try to go forward with that. We're especially -- I've been personally especially intrigued by one of the ideas that has been floated, which is the idea of using basically dead or nonviable embryos that are in fertility clinics. So these are embryos that could not possibly be implanted. Obviously, physicians only implant embryos that look perfect. And for a variety of reasons, some of these are not perfect. And those would be quite useful for embryonic stem-cell purposes, but really couldn't be used for anything else. They certainly couldn't be used in clinics for any other purpose.
So for instance, that idea I think is exciting. But nonetheless, I think it's important to go forward with the cells that have been made in the interim, in the last four years.
PAUL GIGOT: The doctor raises an interesting point, Dorothy, a powerful point, that there are a lot of embryos that have been created for in vitro fertilization that will be destroyed if they are not implanted to create children, and they will be destroyed anyway. What's the moral difference between allowing that to happen and using them for ...
DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: There isn't. I give you the view of [UNINTEL], a distinguished professor of history, I think summed it up beautifully when he said, if you are a person who thinks that several hundred undifferentiated laboratory embryos are equivalent to ripping a human life out of a woman's womb, there is no point in having an argument. And that is essentially the underlying point. Hundreds, thousands of these things are flushed down the toilet.
I would like to point out that in the -- this is not a new argument, this is not a new battle. In the 18th Century, the small pox injection -- in the early 18th Century -- was a huge issue, and the crown went to the schools of medicine, the schools of theology, and they raised the same issue: you are playing God. And the doctors worried about, well, you're violating the Hippocratic Oath. An injection could cause harm, do more harm. Well, for 40 years there was no ... until Louis XV died of small pox and then they hurried up and they allowed this to take place.
So the issue is really, are we criminalizing the pursuit of knowledge? I mean, that is the basic element we all have to go back to. And I would like to point out that Dr. Kass was against in vitro fertilization in the 1970s and seems to have changed his mind.
KIM STRASSEL: I think it's worthwhile pointing out, though, that there are plenty of people who actually are using embryos for stem-cell research. There is only a restriction on federal funding, and this is because there are many people who have very strong feelings -- millions of Americans have very strong feelings about having their tax dollars go toward this purpose. If you're a private company, though, you can do any sort of research that you want. And there are many, many companies that are doing that right now.
PAUL GIGOT: Okay, Kim, you get the last word. Sorry Dorothy. Next subject.