Avenue Adds Fuel to Stem Cell Controversy
July 11, 2001; 9:00 PM EDT (CNN) -- Scientists in Virginia injected a new element into the debate over embryonic stem-cell research by announcing they had created human embryos specifically for the purpose of extracting the stem cells. Until now, such research has been conducted on embryos left over from fertility treatments or from abortions. The announcement comes as U.S. President George Bush decides whether to allow Federal funding of stem cell research.
Because harvesting stem cells destroys the embryo, this medical research has become entangled in the abortion debate. Opponents of the research say it is wrong because it destroys human life. Supporters say the embryos were going to be destroyed anyway and that the research holds the potential to cure debilitating diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's. Creating embryos intended only for research raises new questions about the ethics of stem-cell science.
Sem cells are "blank" cells that have the potential to develop into any type of cell in the body -- nerve cells, heart cells, kidney cells. Scientists are trying to harvest the cells before they have differentiated, then coax them into becoming certain types of cell. If they could grow cardiac cells, for instance, they might one day be able to replace damaged heart tissue in someone who has had a heart attack. By growing nerve cells they might be able to repair brain cells damaged by Alzheimer's or Parkinson's, or replace injured spinal cord cells in a paraplegic.
Although researchers say the field is promising, no cures have been developed from stem cell research so far. Some researchers are also looking into the possibility of using adult stem cells -- such as those derived from bone marrow -- as an alternative to embryonic cells. However, many researchers say adult cells are not as flexible as embryonic cells and so are less capable of growing into different kinds of tissue.
Currently, embryonic stem cell research in the United States is privately funded. The Bush Administration is trying to decide whether to allow Federal funding of the work -- a decision that is politically charged. Stem cell researchers and advocates for people who hope to benefit from the research say Federal funding could speed the development of therapies and keep the U.S. at the forefront of a medical field it pioneered. Anti-abortion groups say destroying an embryo to get the stem cells is an unacceptable use of taxpayer dollars.
The president must weigh the conflicting views within his own party, as well. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson has been a leading advocate of stem cell research. Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, an opponent of abortion rights, has written to Bush urging him to allow Federal funding of stem cell research. A group of 38 House Republicans sent a similar letter. At the same time, three prominent GOP leaders sent a letter urging a ban on federal funds.
• Could stem cell research really hold the promise scientists hope it holds?
• Will allowing Federal funding of stem cell research reignite a fierce battle over abortion rights?
• Is there an ethical difference between creating human embryos specifically for stem-cell extraction versus extraction from embryos left over from fertility treatments or abortion?
• What political damage does Bush risk by choosing one side of the debate over the other?
• Would a breakthrough in stem-cell research change the nature of the debate?
(1) U.S. President George W. Bush: The President is under intense pressure from people on both sides of the stem cell issue to decide in their favor. He risks alienating a key support base -- religious conservatives and other anti-abortion rights groups -- if he decides to allow Federal funding.
(2) U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson: Within the Bush Administration, Thompson is a leading advocate of federally funded stem cell research.
(3) U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah): Hatch, though opposed to abortion rights, has urged Bush to allow Federal funding of stem cell research, saying it is in line with "pro-life" values.
(4) U.S. Representative Dick Armey (R-TX): The former House Majority Leader and several other prominent Republicans have sent Bush a letter urging him to ban federal funds for stem cell research.
(5) National Conference of Catholic Bishops: Like many religious groups that are opposed to abortion, the NCCB opposes federal funding of stem cell research. However, the group says it supports using public money for research on adult stem cells.
(6) Dr. John Gearhart: A pioneer of stem cell research, Gearhart says banning Federal funds would slow down medical advances and be a setback for patient care. He also says Federal funding would mean greater oversight of research labs that would ensure ethical guidelines were being followed.
(7) Mary Tyler Moore: Actress Mary Tyler Moore, who has suffered from diabetes for more than 30 years, has been a leading advocate for stem cell research, testifying before Congress numerous times.
The President has not set a timetable for his decision on Federal funding of stem cell research, saying he must weigh all sides of the issue carefully, but White House officials say a decision is expected sometime in July.
Eggs, Sperm for Stem Cells
July 11, 2001; 4:28 PM EDT (CNN) -- Researchers at a Virginia medical school have become the first to create human embryos specifically to harvest stem cells for scientific investigations. Previously, researchers collected stem cells -- immature cells that can be coaxed into developing into any cell in the body -- from unused embryos remaining at fertility centers. But the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School chose to create its own embryos for two reasons:
(1) "The consent of the donors to this process is very clear as opposed to asking someone who created IVF eggs if they would be okay with using them this way," a school spokeswoman said.
(2) "There is also the fact that these eggs are younger. Younger eggs are more viable eggs."
"Sperm donors received $50 for their semen, and egg donors received $2,000 as compensation," a medical school spokesman said. Specifics of the research appear in the July issue of the journal Fertility and Sterility, which was published today.
"Typically, the discarded embryos from IVF centers come from people who have been trying to conceive for a long time, possibly indicating that the donors were older people," the spokeswoman said. Embryonic stem cells are preferable for research because of their immaturity and lack of development. While researchers can derive stem cells from umbilical cord blood, spinal fluid, and adult organs, those cells are more differentiated or specialized.
Unspecialized cells are preferable because stem-cell tissue lines can become any type of body cell that can be used for therapeutic purposes. Those tissue cells might ultimately lead to cures for conditions such as diabetes, Alzheimer's, heart disease, and Parkinson's.
When does life begin?
Religious organizations expressed criticism of the research. According to the Associated Press, Mary Pechtel, President of a Chapter of the Virginia Society for Human Life, told one newspaper, "It's still killing a human being."
There has been debate whether fertilized eggs that are in a tube, and not a womb, constitute life. Some argue that life begins at the moment of fertilization while others contend implantation in a uterus marks the beginning of life. "We are opposed to research that kills human embryos. These were way beyond fertilized eggs, they were six-day-old embryos," said Douglas Johnson, Legislative Director for the National Right to Life. Johnson said what he finds most appalling about the study was that it originated with the "leading infertility institution in the country. This is the clinic that developed the first successful IVF procedures in the United States." "We consider it appalling, grotesque, and ghoulish," Johnson said, but he said the Jones Institute's actions provide insight into the stem cell research community's intentions. "Initially researchers said they would use only left-over embryos for research, but the industry's impatience led to creating embryos," Johnson said. He predicts that researchers will begin seeking Federal funding to create embryos and then to clone them, eliminating the necessity of paying donors.
Researchers collected 162 eggs from 12 donors and used standard IVF techniques. Insemination yielded 110 fertilized eggs and 50 matured to blastocysts -- hollow, fluid-filled cavities surrounded by single cells. Scientists treated 40 of those blastocysts to yield three healthy embryonic stem-cell lines. The tissue lines are in various stages of evaluation.
President Bush met with bioethicists Wednesday to determine if stem-cell researchers should receive Federal funds. Currently, there is a ban on the use of Federal funds for human embryo research, but there are no restrictions on privately funded research such as the work done at the Jones Institute "Nine states have bans on embryo research," according to the Jones Institute study.
The Jones Institute Ethics Committee consulted with clergy, legal professionals, and ethicists to determine if creating embryos for research purposes was appropriate and concluded that it was. Groups at the Eastern Virginia Medical School and Sentara Norfolk General Hospital reviewed and approved the study protocol. "I am impressed with the thoughtful approach taken with the ethical issues involved in this study," John Robertson, Co-Chair of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine's Ethics Committee, stated in a press release. "It provides a model for the scrutiny that research of this kind should receive."