- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 25, 2005

Scores of editorials and news reports about using “spare” in vitro fertilization (IVF) embryos for stem-cell research continue to speak of “the Bush ban on stem-cell research.” It’s amazing how badly this gets the story wrong.

Stem-cell research is forging ahead and is funded by the feds. “Adult” stem-cell research, using these amazingly versatile cells taken harmlessly from cord blood and adults, is leading to cures in dozens of federally funded clinical trials.

There is no embryo research “ban.” There isn’t even a “ban” on funding. In fact, President Bush is the first president ever to use federal funds for research on embryos.

In that famous August 2001 speech, he liberalized existing policy — and was criticized by some Christian conservatives for it. He announced funding for research on cell-lines from already destroyed embryos. It was a principled compromise, and the National Institutes of Health now spend tens of millions of dollars every year following through. However, despite the hype, we are a long way from “cures” using embryo stem cells.

The current fight is about whether to use federal dollars to fund experiments using “spare” embryos from in vitro clinics. There is no federal law preventing researchers from using these embryos with private funding. The president has promised to veto a bill that would overturn his compromise and force taxpayers to fund using human embryos for medical research despite their belief it is a grave wrong. The bill narrowly passed in the House and awaits Senate action. But even if it passes the Senate, the votes to override a presidential veto aren’t there.

That’s one reason there is so much interest in “alternative” ways of getting embryonic-type or “pluripotent” stem cells (cells that can become any type of tissue in the body) — ways that don’t involve destroying embryos.

The president’s Council on Bioethics recently suggested several options. One would use cells from embryos that have died naturally. Another would focus on a procedure fusing an adult cell, such as a skin cell, with an egg cell after reprogramming the genes of one or both cells. The result would be “embryonic-type stem cells” produced without an embryo — no embryos would be created, and none destroyed. These stem cells could generate new cell lines for research, without raising the emotive moral issue of destroying tiny human embryos.

This method, and others being tested, would give scientists exactly the kind of stem cells they prize the most — cells whose genetic make-up they can control — and undermine the claim we “must have” so-called “therapeutic” cloning.

While we don’t know these options will work, there are promising indications they will. These methods should be explored — in the traditional way science works, using animals models first. The Senate is considering a bill to do just that.

Yury Verlinsky of the Reproductive Genetics Institute claims he has already created embryonic-type stem cells by fusing existing stem cells with ordinary cells and has applied for a patent. Similarly, Kevin Eggan of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute has announced his lab fused a human embryonic stem cell to an adult skin cell, causing the skin cell to begin behaving like a youthful, embryonic stem cell. While this method requires using existing stem cells, which could be taken from the already existing “Bush” lines, other promising methods would not.

The hottest topic is umbilical cord blood, which is rich in stem cells and in the past has been thrown away. The Senate is on the verge of passing legislation with wide bipartisan support to establish a national cord-blood program.

Meanwhile, much public debate actually focuses elsewhere — not on “stem-cell research” from cell-lines or frozen embryos, but on using cloning to mass produce embryos to mass produce stem cells. That’s the real agenda behind the push to expand the Bush stem-cell funding policy. And it has persuaded citizens of cash-strapped California to wager $6 billion on Proposition 71 — the state’s extravagant effort to declare independence from the National Institutes of Health and develop its own cloning research program.

Most Americans believe these issues are big controversies only in the United States. And we are continually told that, unless we press ahead with cloned research embryos, we will be left behind by the competition.

Wrong. In March last year Canada decided to make “therapeutic cloning” a felony, to be rewarded not with a Nobel Prize but five years’ jail-time. Even embryo stem-cell research from “spare” in vitro embryos is controversial. Germany turned the Bush funding policy into law. The European Union, now with 25 member states, came close to copying the policy too. In none of these countries is there much of a “religious right.” But there is a focus on scientific accountability, challenging hype and seeing research proceed in an ethical manner.

Adult-stem-cell research, the national cord-blood program and the need to explore ethical ways to obtain embryonic-type stem cells: These are all good news for those who want cures and are pro-science but also take ethics seriously.

Nigel M. de S. Cameron is president of the Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future and research professor of bioethics at Chicago-Kent College of Law, in the Illinois Institute of Technology.

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