Jan. 26, 2000 (Washington) -- Does stem cell research result in the destruction of life, or is it the harbinger of a lifesaving scientific tool? The argument threatens to undermine stem cell studies just at the moment when the promising technology is making rapid gains. Even though the Clinton administration allowed stem cell experiments to proceed under tight guidelines, it's not clear yet how George W. Bush will proceed.
The primitive cells, a kind of biologic putty, are obtained from bone marrow or an embryo and theoretically can be molded into other types of cells, which in turn can be used in treatments for many devastating conditions from heart disease to paralysis. The question for scientists now is, how do they crank the cells up? Diabetes is a prime target, because it's thought that stem cells could be readily converted to cells that produce insulin. Similarly, Parkinson's patients might benefit from stem cells turned into manufacturers of the brain chemical dopamine, which is lacking in these patients.
"We have been told by Bush transition team officials that precipitous action on the stem cell research was unlikely, and so far ... there has been none. ... So we're monitoring, almost on an hour to hour basis," Mary Hendrix, PhD president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology tells WebMD. The group of 60,000 scientists is pushing hard to hold the line on stem cell studies.
Hendrix says that if any policy review occurs, she hopes to convince the president that stem cell experiments hold great promise and can proceed in an ethical manner.
The president campaigned in support of existing federal policy that prohibits research involving the destruction of an embryo. "You're familiar with the president's position on the issue. If there are any other regulations or any other changes, you'll be notified," Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary, tells WebMD.
An unknown in the equation is how newly confirmed Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson will react. He will supervise the federal research establishment, and even though he opposes abortion, as Wisconsin's governor he praised a University of Wisconsin scientist for his work on stem cells. In 1999, Thompson singled out James Thomson, PhD, for "groundbreaking developments in stem cell research."
However, since the new president has already rolled back funding for international family planning programs that counsel or offer abortion services, the question now is will Bush take a hard look at stem cells? Antiabortion groups hope the answer is yes. They oppose stem cell technology as unethical and illegal. William Saunders, JD, of the conservative Family Research Council, says the approach amounts to "disposable human beings."
"Even though it seems insignificant, it's just the most defenseless human being ... but it's still a human being. To kill one human being to help another ... [is] just not something we want to do. We don't want to go down that road," Saunders tells WebMD.
Under a National Institutes of Health guideline that was finalized last year, stem cell studies can proceed as long as they use embryos originally intended for in vitrofertilization that were going to be discarded anyway. However, a highly placed government source tells WebMD that so far, there have been no applications for stem cell grants, even though the money is available.
The speculation is that researchers are taking a wait and see attitude before committing to complex and controversial experiments that could be canceled. Meanwhile, John Gearhart, PhD, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology and a pioneering stem cell researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, is watching the situation carefully.
"'Concerned' is a fair statement. I think that there's been a great deal of work and effort to position guidelines that are workable," Gearhart tells WebMD. Gearhart agrees the technology needs oversight, but some of the most egregious potential abuses, like selling embryos, are already outlawed.
Meanwhile, earlier this week Britain's House of Lords voted to allow limited cloning of human embryos to produce stem cells, in spite of vigorous objections from religious leaders. That follows a similar approval from the lower House of Commons last year. Now England could move ahead in this competitive technology.
"Falling behind other research enterprises in this field -- I hope that doesn't happen," says Hendrix.
Though stem cells have detractors, they also have powerful backers, like diabetic Mary Tyler Moore and Parkinson's patient Michael J. Fox. Their voices have already been heard in the debate. So may the chorus of countless others who suffer from heart disease, stroke, and paralyzing diseases.