- The Washington Times - Monday, August 26, 2002

It's been more than a year since President Bush announced his decision to limit the federal funding of research on embryonic stem cell lines. Since then, the field has experienced a number of growing pains in everything from basic science to legal and ethical roadblocks.
A bit of review may in be order. Regardless of where they come from, stem cells have the potential to become any type of cell, ranging from neurons in the brain to insulin-secreting cells in the pancreas. Because many diseases, such as juvenile diabetes and Parkinson's, result from certain cells being disabled or destroyed, stem cells can be the key to regrowing those tissues and, thus, curing those diseases. The tissues grown from a person's stem cells will also carry that person's molecular equivalent of an identification card, thus reducing, or possibly eliminating the problems with tissue rejection that often accompany organ transplants.
Stem cells can be taken from adult tissues, umbilical cord tissue and embryonic tissue. While some believe that adult stem cells and cord stem cells will be as useful as embryonic stem cells, the simple fact is that the science is still too new for anyone to be certain. In an interview, Susan Garfinkel, director of research grants for the Stem Cell Research Foundation, said that the consensus in the scientific community is that all the cell lines should be worked on, because research in one area will compliment the others. However, research on embryonic stem cells comes only at the price of the destruction of the embryo the taking of a potential life.
Congress outlawed federal financing for experiments on embryos in 1994, but each administration determines how strictly or how liberally that law is interpreted when federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health are processing research grant requests. While the Bush administration's guidelines limited federal funding to the study of 64 then-existent embryonically derived self-perpetuating stem cell lines, those prohibitions only apply to work done with federal dollars. As long as taxpayer dollars are not used, researchers can do whatever they would like up to and including deriving new embryonic stem-cell lines for study. Earlier this year, the administration even approved federal funding for a project using stem cells from aborted fetuses. And, while trying to keep accounts separate may make for an accounting nightmare, the science of stem cells is still in its infancy.
Still, only 17 cell lines are currently thought to be available to researchers. Many of the others are tied up in ownership battles. Others simply have not been tested. As Ms. Garfinkel noted, researchers still lack a full understanding of how stem cells grow and differentiate, and what turns them on and what turns them off. Besides, developments in any basic science usually move slowly even if the research community received all the funding it wanted today, no cures would emerge tomorrow.
While many scientists believe we haven't gone far enough, some bioethicists, such as William Saunders, senior fellow for human life sciences at the Family Research Council, believe we've already gone too far. Mr. Saunders said that the FRC would welcome a national debate on the ethics of such emergent areas of biotechnology. Those debates will continue to develop, even as stem cell research continues to go through its growing pains.

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