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Christian Groups Sue to Block Stem Cell Research

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The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the little-known Christian Medical Association, several couples wishing to adopt human embryos, and Nightlight Christian Adoptions, an agency that arranges adoptions of embryos stored at in vitro fertilization clinics. The CMA's executive director, David Stevens, MD, compared federal funding for stem cell research to the government's involvement in the Tuskegee experiments, in which African-American men with syphilis participated in a decades-long study without proper treatment or disclosure of their illness.

The Christian Coalition backed the suit, as did Sen. Sam Brownback, (R-Kan.), who said Thursday that the research is "deeply immoral." He said, "It has never been acceptable to kill one person for the benefit of another."

Sens. Arlen Specter, (R-Penn.), and Tom Harkin, (D-Iowa), are expected to introduce legislation that would specifically allow the NIH to fund the research, while otherwise maintaining the embryo ban.

But Leshen tells WebMD that opponents of the bill may be able to prevent a Senate vote through a filibuster. "I don't know if legislation is the best hope. That's going to be a tough row to hoe." He says, "We're going to be trying to work closely with the Thompson folks to make it clear that there is a large constituency out here who supports this research and wants to see it go forward."

Already this year, the Bush administration has received letters urging federal funding from dozens of Nobel laureates, a long list of prominent patient, disease, and medical groups, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Caplan tells WebMD, "I think that we may see some government funding for limited stem cell research, because there is such a substantial lobby for it. Not just the scientific community, not just a single disease group, but many groups. And these groups also may be able to touch a particular congressman who has an ailment that they say might be helped." In contrast, he says, groups such as those who just sued the government are "small fringe groups."

The opponents of the embryonic stem cell research argued Thursday that adult stem cells may be just as effective in fighting disease, while presenting little of the ethical controversy.

According to Leshen, however, "We need to study all kinds -- fetal tissue cells, embryonic stem cells, and adult stem cells, in parallel. We can't wait the five or 10 years it's going to take to figure out whether or not one is going to work better than the other. Scientists think that embryonic cells have the most promise at this point. If it turns out that some other form of cells works better, then they'll pursue that line."

A study in the prominent The New England Journal of Medicine on Thursday dealt a blow to fetal tissue transplants. Injections of fetal brain cells to treat Parkinson's disease proved disappointing, researchers reported, with no improvement in those patients compared to a control group.

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