- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 5, 2001

One problem with the embryonic stem cell debate is that it is being couched as a war between religious freaks and anti-abortion hardliners on the one hand and scientists in favor of progress on the other. Well, it just isn't that simple. Many pro-life activists have no problem with research on human embryos, while some members of the scientific community express their doubts.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy will kick off a series of Senate hearings today to see how many stem-cell lines exist. Hearings on Sept. 12 and 19 will then examine questions involving the funding for the medical research. Senators are likely to ask the administration and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) tough questions about how they came to the figure of 64 individual, genetically diverse fetal stem-cell lines, when scientists themselves do not acknowledge having that many.
Perhaps President Bush had counting problems, witnesses may suggest. Or perhaps he knew all along and gave the nation exactly what it wanted: a compromise that will take the heat off the political debate for a while even if the science is dubious. Others will want to give the president credit for doing the best he could with an issue of immense ethical proportions.
The problems are clear, though. Consider the much-touted stem cells of the University of Goteborg, which NIH lists as holding the greatest number of eligible stem-cell lines. Turns out the university's scientists only admit to having three established lines. Lars Hamberger, a Swedish fertility expert from Goteborg University, claims he was very clear with the administration about how many established lines they have. And the cell lines they have, like most of the others on the NIH list, are grown from human cells hybridized with mouse cells and would likely never be used in humans. Mouse diseases or mouse genes could be passed on to patients, who would find themselves afflicted with a whole new set of problems. In the rush to find a cutting-edge cure, science and reason have been sent to the sidelines.
It is not just that adult stem cells have a long, proven track record of treating diseases such as cancer and leukemia. They have repaired sight in the blind and helped regenerate heart tissue. But as a "miracle cure," embryonic stem cells have in some cases turned out to be less than miraculous. Young cells, for instance, have been known to grow wildly and unpredictably in experimental treatments. This week's congressional hearings ought to illuminate some of these daunting scientific and ethical problems.


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