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Stem Cell Research: Political Science

Margaret Warner leads a discussion about the Republican party struggle to reach consensus about the use of stem cells in scientific research.

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  • MARGARET WARNER:

    What should the president do about federal funding for embryonic stem cell research? We explore that with representatives from two communities deeply involved in the debate. Two Republican Senators, both longtime pro-life activists, who find themselves on opposite sides of this issue: Senators Orrin Hatch of Utah and Sam Brownback of Kansas. And two scientists: John Gearhart, a Professor of Gynecology and Obstetrics at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine– he's the lead scientist in the university's embryonic stem cell research, which is currently funded from private sources– and David Prentice, a Professor of Life Sciences at Indiana State University and a founding member of Do No Harm, The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics. He's been advising Senator Brownback and other members of Congress on bioethics issues. Welcome, gentlemen.

    Professor Gearhart, beginning with you, you are deeply involved in this research. Why is it so essential and why is it better than, say, research using adult stem cells, about which there really is little or no controversy?

  • JOHN GEARHART:

    What we know so far is that the embryonic stem cell research and embryonic stem cells have a great deal more versatility, that is, that they can… We have demonstrations that we can form virtually any cell type that is present in the body. We can grow these cells in very large numbers, and furthermore we have shown in animal models that these cells can be transplanted and they can function. They can assume the functions of the cells that we are desired. This, to date, has not been demonstrated very well in any of the stem cells from adult sources. That is not to say that at some point in the future that we will not be utilizing stem cells from adult sources. But at this point in time, if I was a betting person, I would bet on the source of the cells from embryos.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And what kind of diseases potentially does this kind of research hold most promise to solve, some of these difficult diseases?

  • JOHN GEARHART:

    Well, I think in any disease or injury where we have a cell population that is lost through degeneration or what, that we can now have means in the laboratory of growing those cells and transplanting them into patients. So that if we're looking at motor neuron diseases, looking at diabetes, a wide variety of types, cardiac disease, we have the cells that will provide cell-based therapies for these patients.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    All right. Professor Prentice, you're on the opposite side of this debate scientifically. What's your view of the scientific promise of this kind of research?

  • DAVID PRENTICE:

    I would disagree with Dr. Gearhart. I believe the adult stem cells have shown themselves to be quite a capable alternative. It's interesting, in fact, Margaret, that in September of 1999 when the National Bioethics Advisory Commission issued their report on this, they had a statement that use of embryos for this research was not justified if there was a less morally problematic alternative. I think within the last two years the scientific evidence does indicate that they are a viable alternative. They're actually being used now to treat human patients for cancer treatments, Multiple Sclerosis, Lupus, growth of new corneas for restoring sight to the blind and even the first reports of their use in treating heart disease and cardiac damage. In the animal models actually the adults themselves I believe have shown more success than in any of the embryonic stem cells, reversing diabetes in mice, treating Parkinson's, spinal cord injury, repairing heart damage. So I do think we have a less morally problematic alternative here.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Professor Gearhart, what would you say to that, this debate about one kind versus the other?

  • JOHN GEARHART:

    Well, I would certainly as a scientist say, let's look at the data. Let's look at those results. What we see in the published domain– and this is very important that we have peer- reviewed results– what we see are incomplete reports, claims unsubstantiated by results and this leaves us in this position of trying to assess what are the actual findings here. And in no case do we see any cell type from an adult showing the versatility and functionality of cells obtained from the embryonic stem cells.

  • DAVID PRENTICE:

    In one sense, Margaret, Dr. Gearhart is right that no one particular adult stem cell appears to have the full potential, although there are some indications that bone marrow or brain stem cell might be able to form any tissue in the body. But if our point is really therapeutic benefit for patients I think the adult stem cells come out way ahead here already being used in human patients and showing far greater promise even in the animal models.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Now, expand on what you meant when you said earlier morally problematic about the embryonic stem cells from a scientific perspective.

  • DAVID PRENTICE:

    Certainly the ethical part of the debate is really the root here. If this were just a scientific question, we would do both types of research and no one would have a qualm. But the problem is that these human embryos are human beings. They're not another species. The question is, are these human embryos given the same value as any other human being? And we're really delving into the question of the moral status of the human embryo, if you will.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Professor Gearhart, when you do this research do you feel that these embryos are human beings?

  • JOHN GEARHART:

    Well, what I fall back upon, although I'm not an ethicist, I certainly have ethics. And I look at the determinations made, for example, by the National Bioethics Advisory Commission who published last year an extensive report dealing just with this topic. And I feel quite comfortable that at the stages at which we are using this material that this is material– remember that the future of which is going to be discarded….

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    You mean they're essentially left over from these, in these fertility clinics?

  • JOHN GEARHART:

    They are left over. In your piece up front it said that they were abandoned and now we can use them. We wouldn't be using abandoned embryos. This must be a consented procedure, these embryos must be donated specifically for this work which it is. But I think that the benefits that could come out of this for the millions of Americans who have these injuries and diseases would be enormous.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    What about that point, Professor Prentice, that these embryos while perhaps capable of being grown or nurtured into living human beings aren't going to be.

  • DAVID PRENTICE:

    I think there is a point there that some have been discarded. We don't really even know how many are out there in the freezers. But there are other options besides discarding them. In fact, there are embryo adoption options — the Snowflakes program for example in California and others. They are fairly new ideas. Again if it were a question of destroying or discarding, what I'm proposing is that we err on the cautious side and do neither.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    All right. Let me get the two Senators in here and let's address the policy issue. Senator Hatch, what do you think the president should do here?

  • SEN. ORRIN HATCH:

    Well I think the president should allow this research to go forward. The National institutes of Health have concluded that it is very… That embryonic stem cell research -pluri potent stem cell research if you will has much greater promise than the adult stem cell research. However I have to say I want to continue the research on adult stem cells as well if they could solve the problems that would be great. If they cannot, then we certainly ought to continue to use these pluri potent cells that would be discarded or destroyed anyway for the benefit of mankind to solve these wide problems of health, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Multiple Sclerosis, ALS, juvenile diabetes.

    Why wouldn't we use these cells that will be discarded or destroyed anyway, why wouldn't we use these for benefit of mankind to facilitate life and to extend life? And frankly I'm not against using them for adoption either. That would be wonderful if we would. As a practical matter that just isn't happening. They're being discarded, they're being destroyed and we should use them for the betterment of mankind. I hope that the administration will choose that past.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Senator Brownback.

  • SEN. SAM BROWNBACK:

    I would hope the administration would stay by its decision that it took during the campaign to say that they were opposed to stem cell research on embryonic stem cells. I would hope they would increase substantially their funding for adult stem cell research — saying that this holds enormous promise for us, looking into the future. I hope they would look at the scientific reports out just this past week. Last week in Science magazine there was a report about the instability of embryonic stem cells. It turns out we can form them but they're not stable and they're transitioning or mutating another way — the report out just this week on the use of adult stem cells in Multiple Sclerosis cases showing phenomenal results there of the use of adult stem cells.

    I think if we really would watch this, let this continue to take place in the private sector, which I have some questions really about that, but not the use of taxpayer money– because that's the issue we're talking about here is the use of taxpayer dollars for the destruction of embryos for research purposes. That's a place we have not gone before, and we should not go there now.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Senator Hatch, what's wrong with that idea — that not to ban it outright — it hasn't been banned outright but let private research, private money fund it and put the federal dollars into the less ethically problematic area of adult stem cell research?

  • SEN. ORRIN HATCH:

    Well, there's nothing wrong with that argument except for one thing. And that is that the National Institutes of Health has indicated that the stem cells….

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Let me interrupt you. You're talking….

  • SEN. ORRIN HATCH:

    Cells that are taken from a blastocyst or an embryo.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And can grow into different types of tissue.

  • SEN. ORRIN HATCH:

    And can grow into different types of tissue. Those have much greater promise than the adult stem cells. Now if we ban federal funding of research in this area, that means that all of these research institutions throughout this country that receive federal funding would be barred from participating and trying to help to create treatments and/or cures for these tremendously dread diseases that are afflicting at least 100 million people in our society.

    Now to me I think the most pro-life position you can take is to use these cells that would be discarded or destroyed anyway to extend or to facilitate life of those who are living here on the earth and to keep in mind the NIH has set very restrictive, very stringent standards and rules and regulations for the use of these cells. And I think that is very highly appropriate. But if we don't do that, then I can see some of the greatest research institutions in the world that would be barred from participating in this type of research that could benefit all of mankind.

  • SEN. SAM BROWNBACK:

    Margaret, if I could respond on that. I have great respect for Senator Hatch. Orrin has done a lot of wonderful work and particularly on disease issues, on a lot of issues but particularly on disease issues. You know, the most compassionate person I think I've ever met was Mother Teresa. And I have no doubt in my mind that she would be absolutely opposed to this research going forward from this standpoint — and here is a lady that took care of thousands indeed millions of people in very difficult situations, from the standpoint that when you attack human dignity at any point in time along the human spectrum of life, you attack human dignity at all points of time along the spectrum of human life. And furthermore, we have an alternative here.

    This isn't the sort of thing that says okay, we aren't going to be able to deal with these issues of juvenile diabetes or we're not going to be able to deal with this issue of Parkinson's. We're having phenomenal success in adult stem cells. Let's follow that. Let's increase that money. Let's maintain the human dignity. Just because somebody is on Death Row and going to be killed doesn't mean we should experiment on them in a case. And I don't think just because we've got these sitting in IVF clinics is reason that we should experiment on them.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Let me bring the professors back in here. Professor Gearhart, respond to some of the points that Senator Brownback just made.

  • JOHN GEARHART:

    Well, I'd like to respond first to some of the points that Dr. Prentice made — again or… and Senator Brownback. The issues of the spectacular results with the stem cells from adults, I don't see where these publications are. As we read this, yes, we see, you know, promise, some promise, some interesting results, but we can't put them into the terms of being spectacular. And the paper that was published recently in Science that says that the embryonic stem cells are unstable genetically, I think again this is a very great overstatement. As we begin to look at these cells in the culture situation and we begin to study them, we see that they are forming appropriate tissues or cells.

    These cells are stable. They are functioning as they should in a physiologic sense. And the results from the MIT lab indicates more of what forming an organism is about, not individual cells or tissues. So I think again we've got to look at the science, look at the experimental results to make this judgment on what's proving to be the better source of cells.

  • DAVID PRENTICE:

    Well, Margaret, the exact phrase from that science paper was that the embryonic stem cell genome was genetically unstable, not mutated, but we have various switches that turn on where we're forming a whole organism or even a particular tissue to treat some disease. Those have to form in just the right….

  • JOHN GEARHART:

    Excuse me, David, that's not accurate. It did not talk about the formation of specific tissues as….

  • DAVID PRENTICE:

    No it didn't but it did say that the cells were genetically unstable.

  • JOHN GEARHART:

    Thank you.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Let me get the Senators back in here.

  • SEN. ORRIN HATCH:

    I have to answer that. That's the Whitehead Institute, as I understand it. The lead scientist said that his paper has been tremendously distorted, that literally they can solve the problems of any genetic disorder and that he made it very clear that these stem cells can really be used for the benefit of mankind.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Senator Hatch.

  • SEN. ORRIN HATCH:

    And the pluripotent cells would probably be more beneficial.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Let me ask a question that might combine all of this. Are you uncomfortable as a political figure making a decision like this or decisions like this with such sort of moral importance in an area of such uncertain science?

  • SEN. ORRIN HATCH:

    Well, let me put it this way. I didn't approach this thing lightly. I am very pro-life, have always been on the side of the pro-life cause and have led many of the fights and written much of the legislation. But to make a long story short, I've prayed about it. I've studied the ethics of this. I've studied the legal opinion of the Clinton administration and I found it to be permissible. And I've also studied the science. I have to say, yes, it's a matter of great concern to do this right. But as a person who is really a compassionate conservative, I cannot see why we would not use stem cells that are going to be discarded or destroyed anyway for the benefit of mankind when the National Institutes of Health and other scientists like Dr. Gearhart said that pluri potent stem cells actually provide the greatest possible success ratio in solving these tremendous problems of mankind.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Senator Brownback, how comfortable are you having this debate, having to make these kinds of decisions?

  • SEN. SAM BROWNBACK:

    They've difficult decisions. I've had people in my office, children with juvenile diabetes. I have good friends with children with juvenile diabetes. Cancer is in my family. I've had it. This is the sort of thing that you look at and you're reaching out and you're saying we want to solve these problems but there's a correct, there's a moral, right way of doing that. And I think one has been clearly provided for us. It turns out there's even stem cells in our fat tissue. And if we've got one thing enough of in America, we have enough fat tissue to be able to pull stem cells and we can work with this and we're showing good results. So I look at it and I see a good way that we can solve and deal with this. The notion that just because some point human life is going to be destroyed we should take advantage of that, it's like if Timothy McVeigh is going to be destroyed, we should take advantage of that. I really don't think we should do that.

  • SEN. ORRIN HATCH:

    I don't think that's a good point. Frankly…

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Gentlemen….

  • SEN. ORRIN HATCH:

    We're talking about saving human life here and extending life and facilitating life. Yes it's a tough decision. But all of the scientists that I've been able to talk to except our good friend from the University of Indiana have said that basically pluri potent stem cell research has the highest potential to resolve these difficulties and these problems. Some have said that you might compromise by having, say, 12 stem cell lines. That's not going to be enough.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Senator…

  • SEN. ORRIN HATCH:

    You're going to have to have more lives than that. I think in the end let's facilitate and extend life. Let's help all these people who are suffering from these maladies since they'll be destroyed anyway.

  • SEN. SAM BROWNBACK:

    Do it the right way.

  • SEN. ORRIN HATCH:

    The cells will be destroyed the right way.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Senators both and Professors both, we'll have to leave it there. But thank you all four very much.

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