July 18, 2001 (Washington) -- As Congress continued hearings on stem cell research, advocates of controversial studies using cells taken from human embryos gained the support of both a National Institutes of Health report and a prominent conservative Republican on Wednesday.
Later this month, President Bush is supposed to announce his decision on federal funding for studies of embryonic stem cells. The Clinton administration had given the research the green light, but Bush has suspended that decision for a full review of the cutting-edge issue.
The NIH report released Wednesday emphasized the merit of embryonic and less contentious adult stem cell research. "Both of these cell types hold enormous promise," the report stated. Using both cell types, scientists have been able to repair or replace damaged cells and tissues in animal studies, according to the report.
Stem cells are "blank" cells that have the power to transform themselves into virtually any type of cell in the body. Scientists are hoping to harness this ability to battle a host of serious human diseases.
"It is impossible to predict which stem cells ... will best meet the needs of basic research and clinical applications," the NIH report said. "The answers clearly lie in conducting more research."
Meanwhile, Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) testified at a Senate hearing that he supported embryonic research under strict ethical guidelines. Frist, a heart surgeon and the Senate's only doctor, said, "research using the more versatile embryonic stem cells has greater potential than research limited to adult stem cells."
Frist joins a growing list of conservatives, including Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Nancy Reagan, who back federal funding.
According to the NIH, there are already about 30 embryonic stem cell "lines," which means that research stem cells have come from about 30 different human embryos.
Frist said that scientists should come together to decide on an upper limit of cell lines that could receive federal funding. "You don't need unlimited cell lines," he said. Frist also emphasized that taxpayer dollars should not be spent for the actual extraction of stem cells from embryos, the act that results in their destruction.
The early-stage human embryos in question are frozen and "left over" from in vitro fertilization efforts. They would otherwise be discarded.
But the Catholic Church and many pro-life advocates are morally opposed to any government involvement in embryonic stem cell research, contending that the research requires destroying human life. Sen. Sam Brownback (R- Kan.) said, "We simply do not need to do any research which relies on the destruction of human beings."
By contrast, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) said that he believes that life begins in the mother's womb. But Catholic leaders insist that it commences upon the union of the male sperm and female egg.
A House hearing Tuesday featured testimony that opposed funding for the embryonic research from a couple who had adopted frozen embryos that ultimately were born as twins.
Brownback and others opposed to the embryonic research say that adult stem cells are the only ethically acceptable scientific avenue.
But the NIH report noted that adult stem cells are rare and that there is no evidence that they can develop into any other type of cell like embryonic stem cells can.
It's still uncertain how President Bush will decide on federal funding for the embryonic research.
Bush, who plans to meet with the Pope in Rome later this month, said this week that "the leaders of the Catholic Church ... stand strong on the principle of life. They also stand strong on making sure that those who have no voice are heard."
Earlier this year, Bush wrote to a conservative group that he opposed federal funding for "stem cell research that involves destroying living human embryos."
Even if embryonic stem cell research flourishes under possible federal funding, there's no guarantee of cures for cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, or any other of a list of diseases.
The NIH report notes that finding a cure for type 1 diabetes may be difficult because the body's own immune system attacks and destroys its cells. "This ... must be overcome if researchers hope to use the transplanted cells to replace the damaged ones," it says.