Patient Groups React Cautiously To Bush's Stem Cell Decision

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Aug. 10, 2001 (Washington) -- Shelby Cummings is a fundamentalist Christian who is trying to reconcile her strong anti-abortion beliefs with the hope that someday stem cell research can cure her daughter's diabetes.

"We have presented it to her as, 'God has allowed you to have this, and he makes no mistakes,'" Cummings of Springfield, Ill., tells WebMD.

Overall, Cummings supports President Bush's decision to allow embryonic stem cell studies to proceed using existing cell lines, even though many conservatives believe these cells are only derived by destroying human life.

While she sympathizes with that argument, Cummings is also eager to see 6-year-old Adison freed from the pain and burden of always wearing an insulin pump. It keeps her daughter alive by preventing blood sugar from building up to a dangerous level in her blood.

"As long as the research has occurred from this starting point, right here, I would feel comfortable allowing her to have that treatment ...That's as far as I can go with it," Cummings says.

Whatever their personal feelings about the ethics of stem cell research, advocates for patients with chronic diseases were quick to express their support, however qualified, for President Bush's decision to permit stem cell studies to proceed.

Stem cell treatments in theory could be designed for a wide range of diseases including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, or heart problems. The cells may also help the paralyzed walk. Actor Christopher Reeve, confined to a wheelchair following a horse riding accident, said the president made a step in the right direction but that he should go farther.

"Few issues enjoy broader bipartisan support in Congress," said Reeve in a statement.

Though stem cells can in theory be made into virtually any other kinds of tissue, some are apparently more versatile than others.

At the moment, embryonic stems cells have only been studied in animals, and Richard Furlanetto, MD, scientific director of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, says he believes that clinical trials are at least three years away. The foundation, a strong believer in the potential of stem cells, has already funded four different groups in the amount of $4 million dollars to study the technique. Such research is legal in the private sector.

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There have been a handful of successful procedures using stem cells extracted from placental cord blood. Andrew Yeager, MD, director of stem cell transplantation at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, treated a 5-year-old Atlanta boy with sickle cell anemia with this approach two years ago. These cells were used to rebuild his "blood factory," but Yeager says their use is limited compared to embryonic stem cells.

Over time, stem cell supporters want to make sure that their views aren't lost on the presidential advisory council that will be appointed in the coming weeks to implement the guidelines.

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