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Federal ban slows basic human cell research, experts say



Federal ban slows basic human cell research
December 3, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) -- New primordial cell technology offers the hope of more
effective treatments for heart disease, diabetes and other disorders, but
the research is being slowed by a ban on federal support for studies using
human embryos, experts told Congress.

A medical ethicist affiliated with an anti-abortion group countered that
because the cell research begins with destruction of human embryos, it is
morally unacceptable.

The comments came Wednesday at a Senate subcommittee hearing called to
consider how the government should respond to a recent announcement that
privately financed researchers have isolated embryonic stem cells. These
are the basic or primordial cells from which all of a human's bodily
tissues and organs develop during gestation.

Subcommittee chairman Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, said the issue is so
complicated that other hearings will be required before any federal action
is possible.

Experts say government support is crucial.  Expert witnesses, led by Dr.
Harold Varmus, head of the National Institutes of Health, said stem-cell
research could lead to the prevention of birth defects or to the ability to
grow replacement parts for human beings.

Cultured stem cells, they said, could produce new heart cells, or new
insulin- producing cells for the treatment of diabetes, or new neurons for
patients with Parkinson's disease or spinal-cord injuries.

Some treatments could be ready within five years, but only with government
support, said Dr. James Thomson, a University of Wisconsin researcher who
isolated stem cells from a human embryo.

"It is in the public interest for the government to support this research,"
he said.  Without full government support, Thomson said, the work would be
slowed, and the medical benefits would take years longer to develop.

Use of embryos, fetuses at center of debate

Under a federal ban, government-funded researchers must avoid human
stem-cell studies and other research that involves the use of human
embryos. Thomson's work was funded privately.

Part of the federal law states that the ban applies only to what it calls
"organisms." Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, minority leader on the subcommittee,
said that definition would exclude stem-cell culturing and thus allow it.

"If it is not organisms, then it is not included," Harkin said. "This is
not covered by the federal ban."  Varmus, Thomson and two other scientist
witnesses confirmed for Harkin that stem cells technically are not
organisms because they cannot independently maintain life and function.

"You could not create a full human being from these cells," said Michael D.
West, president of Advanced Cell Technology.  'Each system arouses ethical
concerns.'

But Richard M. Doerflinger, associate director of the Secretariat for
Pro-Life Activities of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said
that to isolate the stem cells, Thomson and other researchers had either to
destroy a living human embryo or to collect cells from a freshly aborted
fetus.

A third method, used by West's company, places human genes into a cow's egg.

"Each system arouses ethical concerns," said Doerflinger. "These are the
type of experiments that the federal ban" applies to, he said.   "You could
rip my heart out of my body and it would not be an organism," Doerflinger
added.

But such research would be fatal and this, he said, is what happens to the
embryo.  Many believe, he said, that a fertilized embryo represents a human
life and is entitled to all the protection of a human life.

Arthur L. Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics of the University of
Pennsylvania Health System, disagreed. Research by Thomson involves embryos
that are being discarded by patients at fertility clinics, he said.

"We should concentrate on treating the ill rather than be concerned about
the lost potential" from destroying an embryo, Caplan said.  "We don't live
in a world of moral absolutes," he said. "We can no longer say that we
understand even when life begins."

Caplan said he prefers that research with human embryos be in the open and
public, instead of conducted by private companies for strictly commercial
reasons