Bush decision key to NIH stem cell study funds

by Liz Kohman

In a debate meshing science, ethics and politics, the Bush administration must soon decide on a stem cell research policy while researchers at the University and around the country wait.

At the heart of the debate is whether federal National Institutes of Health funding should be used to support controversial embryonic stem cell research.

Scientists can coerce stem cells into becoming different cells such as muscle, bone or brain. The cells can be taken from embryos or bone marrow.

Stem cell research has captivated many people with the possibilities stem cells offer for curing diseases such as Parkinson’s and diabetes.

“The excitement is terrific,” said Charles Moldow, Medical School dean of research. “But there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

The controversy surrounds stem cells taken from embryos. Some argue taking cells from embryos and using them for research destroys human life, while others contend the potential benefits outweigh the cost.

Currently scientists are only allowed to use cells from embryos considered medical waste, such as embryos left over from in vitro fertilization.

The Stem Cell Institute at the University uses adult stem cells – cells taken from bone marrow – and embryonic stem cells from mice.

“Even though I should be a proponent for adult stem cells because that’s what we do,” said Catherine Verfaillie, director of the Stem Cell Institute, “if anybody asks me, I think that ES cell work should be funded.”

Verfaillie said comparisons between adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells are important, and an end to NIH funding would hurt the chances of such comparisons. It would take away the Stem Cell Institute’s ability to work on embryo stem cell research in the future.

Researchers are unsure about the differences between embryo and adult stem cells or if one is better than the other.

“You can only answer that question if investigators are allowed to compare the two side by side,” Verfaillie said.

Most labs do not have the capability to do research on both embryonic and stem cells, but Verfaillie is hoping to collaborate with the University of Wisconsin Madison’s Stem Cell Research Program to compare the two stem cell types.

Verfaillie expects to hear in August if the NIH approves the grant funding the University’s collaboration with Madison and several European universities.

The collaboration is contingent on the Bush administration allowing the NIH to fund embryonic stem cell research.

If the NIH doesn’t fund the research, universities and other institutions studying embryonic stem cells would have to depend on money from foundations to continue researching.

The NIH is the main source of funding for such research. NIH grant money makes up approximately 90 percent of the funds Verfaillie receives.

She said an end to NIH funding would mean biotechnology corporations would end most of the research concerning embryonic stem cells.

Verfaillie also said the United States is taking a different approach to the stem cell debate than most European countries. Other countries have developed policy legislating research, while the United States is focusing on funding for research.

“Here they won’t fund it through the NIH, but you can still do it in the garage behind your house if you have the funding,” Verfaillie said.

Jeffrey Kahn, director of the Center for Bioethics, said it’s unfortunate ethical issues in science are being driven by politics.

“I don’t know that it’s wrong to think about the political implications of science policy,” Kahn said. “But I don’t think that the politics ought to drive science policy.”

Kahn also said he was concerned about the implications of allowing biotechnology companies to drive stem cell research.

This could create problems because the information would be proprietary, Kahn said, and it would hurt the ability of scientists to build off each other’s research. It would also put the research process in the hands of the private sector, where limited ethical rules apply.

The University recognizes the ethical issues related to stem cell research and is forming an ethics advisory board for the Stem Cell Institute.

The board – headed by Kahn – will involve people with a broad spectrum of perspectives on stem cell research, including clergy, scientists and lawyers.

The first meeting of the ethics advisory board is being scheduled for fall.

The Bush administration debate is one example of controversy surrounding stem cells. Kahn said the importance of the research depends on how people address the issue.

“It depends on what you think about the status of human embryos,” Kahn said. He added that while some people equate cells from embryos with cells scraped from the inside of a cheek, others might equate cells taken from embryos as potential life with the same rights as a person.

Kirk Allison, the associate director of the Program in Human Rights and Medicine, said even if embryonic stem cells prove to have more potential than adult stem cells, it doesn’t necessarily justify using them as research.

“Being human life with potential makes the embryo a subject of ethical consideration to a degree that may not be disregarded without general implications for human dignity, even though a benefit may be obtained through its use,” Allison said in a written statement.

Bush is examining the different perspectives on the embryonic stem cell debate and is expected to make a decision concerning NIH funding soon.


Liz Kohman covers the Academic Health Center and welcomes comments at [email protected]