Change in federal funding law could spark research

Mark Baumgarten

If the National Bioethics Advisory Commission has its way, the University might begin a new form of research involving human embryos.
This possibility comes at the hands of the commission’s recommendation that federal funding provide for stem cell research on human embryos, or fertilized eggs.
Jeff Kahn, a professor in the School of Public Health and consultant to the presidentially appointed commission, believes funding of this research will bring positive results for years to come. The commission has prepared its recommendation and will submit a final report to President Clinton by the end of June.
“There are great potential medical benefits,” Kahn said. “The therapies that come out of this research could do things like cure diabetes or treat cancer patients.”
If the commission’s recommendation is accepted, it will end a 20-year ban on federal funding of all embryonic research passed during the beginning of the Reagan administration.
“There is a lot of research that is not going on dealing with human fertility because of that ban,” Kahn said. “It has really put a damper on progress in all human biological technology.”
The possibility for new treatments comes from the isolation of the most fundamental type of stem cells found in early embryos. These stem cells have the ability to develop into almost any cell type in the human body. The ability to develop specific cells on demand will increase the treatment possibilities for injury and disease.
Without federal funding, all progress made by research in this field has been paid for by private parties. University-employed researchers in embryonic research programs like the one at the University of Wisconsin’s have had to rent out non-university labs and equipment with private money.
But some groups identifying the embryos as humans with full rights oppose the research, citing that medical progress is not worth the life of any person.
“If you’re a human being, you must be respected — all life has an inherent value,” said Carrie Rolling, college project coordinator for the Human Life Alliance of Minnesota Education Fund. “When the Nazis were experimenting on people in death camps they gained an enormous amount of info. Yes, that info may be useful, but it’s not right.”
But the commission claims that the research they are endorsing is ethically acceptable. By using embryos donated by couples after infertility treatments, Kahn said they will be making the greatest use of the embryos.
“There are currently over 30,000 frozen embryos left over from infertility treatments,” Kahn said. “There are very few options as to what can be done with these. They can remain frozen forever, discarded or used for research that can lead to medical breakthroughs.”
While the University is currently not conducting any research involving human embryos, Kahn said the University could possibly start a program if the recommendation for funding were to go through.
“I think we would definitely want to conduct that research here,” Kahn said. “I’m sure that many institutions will jump on that immediately; there are so many possibilities with human embryos that it would be hard to pass up.”
Researchers at the University may have to wait awhile before they can experiment on human embryos, even if federal funding is granted.
“It’s always hard to say how long it will take to get the funding,” said Associate Vice President of the Academic Health Center Katherine Johnston. “There are so many factors that go into federal funding.”