Skeptics question embryo use

by Geoffrey Ziezulewicz

When University biological sciences professor Philip Regal gets excited about his research, he often can’t sleep because of all the scientific possibilities running through his head.

But if Regal loses sleep over the University’s initiative to pursue embryonic stem cell research, it won’t be because he’s happy about the development, he said.

“They are putting the University’s reputation on the line,” he said of the University’s embryonic stem cell researchers. “To trivialize embryos is a dangerous thing. To trivialize human life, that’s a slippery slope.”

Regal is not alone in his skepticism of the research that involves destroying human embryos to harvest stem cells that could lead to cures for a variety of diseases. Across the University and the state, debate is flowing regarding embryonic stem cell research.

While some see the research as the destruction of human lives, others point to the potential that embryonic stem cells hold for curing major health problems, including diabetes, blood diseases, spinal cord injuries and Parkinson’s disease.

Embryonic stem cells are the cells found in a human fertilized egg that is approximately a week old, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The cells, which have the ability to grow into many types, are extracted and nurtured in a lab, where scientists coax them into becoming the cells they desire.

Once a stem cell line – a group of one kind of cell – is developed from an embryo, scientists can keep replicating and generating the cells they’ve grown.

“Where are we going to draw the line?”

Critics of embryonic stem cell research said they worry about the consequences of a procedure with unproven benefits, especially when dealing with controversial subject matter.

Concerned with the University’s intentions to pursue embryonic stem cell research, state legislators introduced a bill earlier this month that would ban the University from receiving public funding if it continued with that line of research.

Rep. Tim Wilkin, R-Eagan, said he authored the bill because he felt there is no compromise on embryonic stem cell research – it is either conducted or it is not.

Aside from legislation, other critics call for common guidelines and procedures in embryonic stem cell research.

Embryonic stem cell researchers across the world need common protocols for such a sensitive line of work, Regal said.

Regal said he worries the University has not applied guidelines to its initiative and did not consult the public or University community before deciding to pursue the research.

“I would like them to agree that they won’t go any farther than point ‘X,’ ” Regal said. “Where are they going to draw the line?”

There is danger in pursuing research without recognizing the precedent it could set, said Dr. Steven Calvin, assistant women’s health professor and co-chairman of the University’s Program in Human Rights and Medicine.

“It is about crossing a boundary we may look back on and say, ‘Boy, I wish we hadn’t done that,’ ” he said.

Calvin, an obstetrician and gynecologist, said he views a human embryo as a living being and worries that destroying them for research might be precarious.

“I’m all for the research effort at the University, but I’m opposed to embryonic stem cell research,” Calvin said. “It could have potential, but it is not worth the cheapening or danger to human life. If the powerful can utilize the weak, that’s a bad precedent to set.”

“They need to understand what it is we’re doing.”

Academic Health Center Vice President Frank Cerra said the University did not make the decision to pursue embryonic stem cell research; its researchers did.

“They need to understand what it is we’re doing,” Cerra said. “The faculty decides what research they will perform. It’s performed in the University, the dollars are managed by the University, but that’s different than speaking on behalf of the institution. The policy is the faculty chooses which kind of research will be performed.”

Approximately 800 to 900 faculty members are interested in different aspects of embryonic stem cell research, Cerra said.

To foster interest, the University needs the initial embryos to develop its own stem cell research lines, he said.

This kind of research is best done at public universities instead of corporations, which do not have the same public accountability and oversight as the University, Cerra said.

Embryonic stem cell research at the University would not be without ethical consideration, Cerra said. He pointed to the Academic Health Center’s Center for Bioethics, as well as the ethics panel for the University’s Stem Cell Institute.

“We have all kinds of people whose expertise can be brought to bear,” he said.

Dr. Dan Kaufman, who has researched embryonic stem cells and their potential to become blood cells for five years, is one University faculty member interested in pursuing embryonic stem cell research.

Kaufman said University research would use embryos left over from clinics doing in vitro fertilization, which involves fertilizing a woman’s egg outside of her body and then replacing it.

Doctors take numerous eggs for fertilization, he said. The ones not implanted in a woman are discarded.

Kaufman said the University would put the unneeded embryos to good use.

“If they are not destined to be implanted and born, we should try to get the most benefit,” he said.

Using discarded embryos for their stem cells could also help researchers study diseases, Kaufman said. Scientists could grow and study diseased cells.

“We could create (stem cell) lines that carry cystic fibrosis,” he said.

Kaufman said the research is still new and there is no guarantee that any therapeutic benefits will come from embryonic stem cells.

“I tend to try not to oversell the therapies,” he said.

Dr. Doris Taylor, a University physiology professor, came from Duke University last year to continue her research in adult stem cells. Unlike the embryonic variety, adult stem cells are not taken out of an embryo, she said. Adult stem cells do not have as acute an ability to grow into different types of cells as their embryonic counterparts.

Taylor said she is trying to find the best stem cells to repair damaged heart tissue, a process that might include embryonic stem cells.

She said some of the research’s obstacles lie in its scientific feasibility.

“We don’t know how to make them do what we want them to do, how to make them stop growing and how to stop rejection,” Taylor said. “Those are big hurdles to overcome.”

Even if embryonic stem cells do not lead to therapies themselves, Taylor said, their benefit as a learning tool is valuable.

“Right now, if you want to do research on a heart disease medication, you pretty much have to use an animal. If (embryonic) cells can divide and still be cardiac cells, that would be an ideal source to test effects.”

Dr. John Wagner, a University pediatrics professor and stem cell researcher, said embryonic stem cell research must be conducted for patients.

“Time is not on their side, so I and others like me just keep trying to find a cure, be it breast cancer, diabetes, spinal cord injury, heart disease or children with Fanconi anemia,” he said. “If you could see what I see and hear what I hear, you would be both moved to tears and at the same time energized to make some small difference each day in these people’s lives. I see that stem cells might make that difference.”