April 26, 2000 (Washington) -- Scientific breakthroughs, questions of morality, and celebrity were all in the mix Wednesday, as a Senate hearing entered the continuing firestorm over research using stem cells from human embryos.
Promising early research has caused most of the biomedical research community to assert that these stem cells may someday be used to replace damaged or diseased cells in humans. Stem cells are cultured human cells that have the potential to develop into almost any of the body's different tissues, such as bone, heart, or brain tissue. Although these cells are unspecialized, they seem to reproduce themselves limitlessly, and scientists believe they may learn how to manipulate them to develop into various types of cells.
That could bring potential cures for a range of diseases, including cancer, diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and Alzheimer's disease, said Gerald Fischbach, MD, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
The NIH, a government entity, would like to begin funding research. It believes that it has the legal authority to do so, but has yet to draft final guidelines for scientists. Although private research is occurring, scientists believe that federal oversight and coordination are crucial for the cutting-edge field.
But Congress has banned federal spending that destroys embryos, which religious groups and conservative lawmakers believe should block NIH's involvement.
The NIH says it would fund only the stem cell research itself -- not the gathering of stem cells from spare embryos in fertility clinics. But opponents say the policy is still tied in to the destruction of life, and argue that researchers should turn their focus on adult stem cells which can be obtained from bone marrow and have also shown disease-battling potential.
Nevertheless, Sens. Arlen Specter (R, Pa.) and Tom Harkin (D, Iowa) are pushing a bill that would make it legal for the NIH to use federal funds for the gathering of the cells from 'excess' embryos. Specter, who convened today's hearing as chair of the Senate's health appropriations panel, told reporters, "I expect to have a very tough fight."
The American Association for the Advancement of Science does not back federal dollars for the gathering of cells, citing "public anxiety" with the practice. Sen. Sam Brownback (R, Kan.) testified today that it was "illegal, immoral, and unnecessary" to "kill" the embryos in the name of science. An estimated 100,000 leftover embryos are frozen in fertility clinics around the country.
But Specter responded, "A discarded embryo is not on its way to life." And Harkin held up a piece of paper marked with a pencil dot, emphasizing that the dot was the size of one of the embryos in question. He asked, "Are we going to keep them in liquid nitrogen forever?"
The Senate will debate the legislation later this year, Specter said Wednesday, possibly before the Memorial Day holiday.
Specter is enlisting celebrity support for his bill. "It would be a criminal waste not to use [stem cells]," said Christopher Reeve, who played Superman on the silver screen before being paralyzed in an accident. As the hearing's star witness, the wheelchair-bound actor insisted, "No obstacle should stand in the way of responsible investigation."
But the Family Research Council argued in a statement that "there need not be a trade-off between advances in medical research and the protection of innocent life. Does science serve human beings or do human beings serve science?"
Limiting research to adult stem cells "would be tying one hand behind our backs," said Allan Spiegel, MD, director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. "If we don't do the research, [the cures] won't happen."