March 8, 2001 (Washington) -- The continuing firestorm over federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research got new fuel Thursday as a coalition filed suit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for guidelines that would permit the National Institutes of Health to fund the research.
Embryonic stem cells are those that have not yet specialized into brain, heart, or other specific cell types. Early research has excited many scientists to the possibility that they may in the future be able to control the growth of stem cells to provide healthy tissue to battle a range of serious diseases.
Congressional hearings have featured emotional testimony from celebrities such as Christopher Reeve about the importance of promoting disease cures through federal support and oversight of the cutting-edge field.
But those involved in Thursday's lawsuit claimed that the issue involves the basic moral question of whether it is OK to kill humans for the good of other humans.
Federal law has barred federal funding for studies that destroy or put human embryos at risk. In 1999, however, the Clinton administration made a legal determination that funding stem cell research would be legal.
Although removing stem cells from an embryo does cause its destruction, the Clinton rules reasoned that public funding was permissible in some circumstances for research with cells that already had been taken from embryos.
Art Caplan, PhD, director of the University of Pennsylvania's bioethics institute, tells WebMD that both sides' boiling rhetoric has oversimplified the issue. On one side, research advocates have hyperinflated the hopes for disease cures, he says. As for the other side, he says, "The rhetoric that embryos are people is believed by the tiny fraction of the American public."
March 15 is the NIH's deadline for grant applications from stem cell researchers. The NIH will need several more months to determine who would get grants.
HHS had no comment on the lawsuit, but the move clearly angles to turn up the political heat on the Bush administration to rescind Clinton's OK for the research. HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said that he has concerns over Clinton's interpretation, given the prohibitions in the embryo research law. But he said he is conducting an "independent" legal review of the situation.
"We definitely have our work cut out for us on the side of advocating for this research," says Tim Leshen, director of public policy for the American Society of Cell Biology. "A lot of scientists are worried about how this is going to play out politically. They're thinking, 'Do I really want to spend all this time, money, and effort to put in an application only to find out that it's going to be quashed?'"
In congressional budget hearings this week, lawmakers of both parties urged Thompson to permit the research.
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.
These findings, Caplan tells WebMD, "should be a stark reminder that stem cell research is a promise and a hope, but by no means a guarantee. I personally am getting emails from people all around the country saying, 'I have this disease or that disease, can you tell me how to get stem cells.' That kind of thing is sad."