Clinton taps U bioethics

by Sean Madigan

A new discovery in cell research has the president asking a University professor for help in ethical decision-making.
Dr. Jeffrey Kahn was recently chosen as a consultant to President Clinton’s 17-member commission on bioethics.
Kahn, director of the University’s Center for Bioethics, will consult the National Bioethics Advisory Commission on the legal, ethical and medical issues associated with human embryonic stem cell research.
Last November, researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison reported the first successful isolation of human embryonic stem cells — critical findings for treating several serious diseases. Researchers believe these embryonic cells have the potential to grow into any kind of human tissue.
Now researchers are learning how to grow specific cells like blood cells, nerve cells or heart cells. For example, the embryonic cells could grow into bone marrow for cancer patients or pancreas cells for people with diabetes, said Harold Shapiro, the commission’s chairman.
“You can grow anything,” Kahn said of the embryonic stem cells. “They are sort of like seeds that can grow into any kind of plant. But to get those seeds we have to get tissue for human embryos, frozen in fertility labs.”
This is where the debate on human embryonic stem cells begins. During the Reagan administration, Congress passed a ban on the use of federal funding for this type of embryonic research. All current research in this field, like the programs at Johns Hopkins and Wisconsin, were funded through private dollars, said Dr. Jeff McCullough, director of the University’s Center for Molecular and Cellular Therapy.
But now that there is a legitimate application for this type of research, the debate has resurfaced.
“The promise is huge,” Kahn said. “It’s the promise butting up against the ethical use of human embryos.”
While the source of funding might change from public to private, the argument remains the same: Is it ethical to use human embryonic stem cells to recreate human tissue? Opponents of the research say using frozen embryos could be taking a potential human life, Kahn said.
“While I understand and don’t oppose the present restrictions on the use of federal funds, I believe these cells are significantly different, that it is proper to use federal funds to study these cells,” McCullough said.
Clinton established the commission to advise him and the National Science and Technology Council on the government’s role in bioethical research issues. Kahn’s role will be to consult the commission on the legal and ethical repercussions of these new therapies. He will contribute to the commission’s report on the creation of public policy regarding this research.
Kahn will help the commission consider possible queries such as: To what degree, if any, should the government fund research for these potentially life-saving treatments? How much promise does this research actually have? What are the ethical and legal consequences of this research?
The commission is expected to submit its report on the research in June.
This is not Kahn’s first time working with the White House. In 1994, he was the associate director of a White House advisory committee on human radiation experiments. The commission’s work led to Clinton’s apology for the Tuskegee syphilis experiments that took place from the 1930s to 1970s.