NIH grants U funding for debated stem-cell research on embryos

by Justin Costley

A controversial decision by the National Institutes of Health will allow scientists at the University’s stem-cell institute to apply for federal funding for a form of research involving human embryos.
Citing the enormous therapeutic potential of such research, the NIH fashioned a set of guidelines that would fund researchers’ work with cells from leftover embryos donated by patients who have undergone in vitro fertilization procedures.
The cells, called stem cells, are formative cells with the ability to develop into many different types of tissue.
Many scientists agree these cells hold the prospect of curing or creating new therapies for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Diabetes, Parkinsons and many others.
Catherine Verfaillie, director of the University’s stem-cell biology program, said although research must continue for several more years, the cells have the potential to give rise to a number of different applications.
This could include repairing organs by injecting stem-cell patches into the faulty organs or creating whole new organs for transplant.
“It’s great to work in this area because it is exciting for therapeutic possibilities that are out there for patients,” she added.
The possible therapeutic value of the stem cells is uncontested. The controversy, which has raged since privately-funded researchers began this work in 1998, has not focused on their value to medicine but in how they are gathered.
The NIH’s guidelines evade a federal law prohibiting research on human embryos.
The law restricts the NIH from funding the extraction of stem cells from human embryos, but would not prohibit funding of research on the cells themselves.
Scientists may apply for federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research as long as they prove a private company extracted the cells for them.
Because the only way to acquire the cells is by destroying the embryos, critics, who believe life begins at conception, have questioned the morality of the research and attacked the ethical distinctions drawn by the NIH.
Other options
Recent evidence has suggested that stem cells in adults might have similar capabilities as stem cells obtained from human embryos, diminishing the need for the controversial research.
But Verfaillie, who has worked solely with adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells of mice at the University, said stem cells are much less concentrated in adults, and that differences between them might make one set more useful for disease than the other.
She added that the NIH’s decision to provide federal funding for this research will allow scientists at the institute to learn about these differences by comparing their ongoing research with research on cells obtained from human embryos.
“Ultimately, if you think about trying to treat as many diseases as you can, it’s still possible that one cell type will work better for one disease and the other one for the other disease,” Verfaillie said.
Despite the promise, Verfaillie said she is sensitive to the kinds of concerns that make the issue controversial.
A right to life
Since the NIH’s announcement, many people, including Pope John Paul, have voiced concerns over human embryonic research.
In her own mind, Verfaillie agrees with the distinctions drawn by the NIH’s guidelines between embryos that were likely to be discarded anyway and between embryos created specifically for this research.
“I think they’re appropriate,” Verfaillie said.
“I don’t think it is correct to actually create embryos to do this kind of research, but if there are left over cells that won’t be of any use to anybody, you can either discard them and don’t use them, or you try to use them to learn things and possibly treat other people.”
While critics agree stem cell research could lead to wonderful new therapies or perhaps even cures, they also point to recent evidence that suggests these advances could be developed solely from research on adult cells.
Theresa Ploehn, an officer in the University organization Minnesota Students for Life said adult stem-cell research is fine because there is a willing participant. But scientific discovery, no matter what the future potential, should not be sought at the expense of human life.
“Our organization knows that life begins at conception,” she said.
“That’s a human life, and that person has a soul. There are a lot of medical breakthroughs and they’re finding a lot of new medical technologies, but I think this kind of research is at the cost of the sanctity of human life.”
The debate continues
The decision by the NIH will not be the end of the debate, and Verfaillie said she is in the process of creating a committee made of ethicists from around the country.
She added this committee will be able to evaluate and advise researchers on the ethical questions surrounding their future work.
Jeff Kahn, director of the University’s Center for Bioethics, said public debate is essential so that society can come to a consensus on what type of research is acceptable and how it should be carried out.
Ethics boards like the one being created at the University can help do this, he added.
“It sets up a mechanism by which the ethical issues are identified and hopefully addressed with input from nationally known scientists, ethicists, lawyers and members of the Twin Cities and Minnesota communities as well,” he said.
This debate will continue to rage as Verfaillie and the University’s stem-cell institute will move into new space inside Moos Tower in November.
Already the first stem-cell institute in the country, the University program will be allowed to hire new top investigators in the field with funding provided the Board of Regents.
“I’m extremely lucky that they’ve let me build this institute at the University,” Verfaillie said.
“I know from talking with people from other places, they are really calling now to get some ideas on how we are going to do it. It should be a very good thing for the University.”

Justin Costley covers the Medical School and welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3238.