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Expert: U.S. Left Out of Stem Cell Advances

Medical Advances Held Back by Embryonic Stem Cell Ban?
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WebMD Health News

Aug. 9, 2004 - The U.S. ban on embryonic stem cells is making America miss out on medical advances, a prominent researcher argues.

The editorial, by George Q. Daley, MD, PhD, appears in the Aug. 12 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. It comes three years after President George W. Bush's ban on federal support for research on embryonic stem cells created after Aug. 9, 2001.

The 21 embryonic stem cell lines created before that had to be grown with nonhuman animal products. This makes them unsuitable for medical use. Since then, scientists in other nations, notably Singapore, have created fully human embryonic stem cell lines. But researchers who accept federal support can't take advantage of these breakthroughs.

"The President's policy has severely curtailed opportunities for U.S. scientists to study the cell lines that have since been established, many of which have unique attributes or represent invaluable models of human disease," Daley writes.

Daley is associate professor of pediatrics at Children's Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and associate professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Harvard Medical School in Boston. He's also a member of the board of directors of ViaCell, a firm that banks and finds uses for stem cells taken from umbilical cord blood.

Not Just the President

The president's policy isn't the only problem, Daley says. A 1996 rider to the HHS appropriations bill forbids use of federal funds for any "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death." This amendment, written by Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.) has been renewed every year since then.

"Although most embryos created in vitro during fertility procedures are discarded, federal funds may not be used to ascertain what went wrong," Daley writes. "The Dickey Amendment prohibits federally funded scientists from deriving lines that model human disease. ... Such studies have an immediate, compelling medical rationale, yet they cannot be pursued with federal grants."

Rep. David J. "Dave" Weldon Jr., MD, (R-Fla.) is a strong opponent of human embryonic stem cell research. In his January 2003 testimony before a Senate committee, he argued that embryonic stem cell research has not been adequately explored in animal models and that nothing currently justifies the use of human embryonic cells for research. He advocates using adult stem cells, which do not require the use of embryos created during in vitro fertilization or by cloning.

"In fact, the real successes and advances are being made in the area of adult stem cells," Weldon testified. "Adult stem cells can be harvested from many areas of your body such as the marrow, fat tissue, even your nose. There are no immune rejection issues with their use, no moral or ethical objections."

But Daley says international researchers have already created about 50 new embryonic stem cell lines from in vitro fertilizations that, upon genetic testing, carried genetic diseases. These discarded embryos, he says, carry the genes that cause several deadly diseases. Yet U.S. researchers can't study them with federal funds.

"Many opportunities are being missed," he writes.

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