University research is held back by stem cell restrictions

by Libby George

University researchers and U.S. senators are among a growing crowd urging reform of embryonic stem cell research policies.

Sarah Youngerman, associate director of Academic Health Center Public Relations at the University, said the existing restrictions hinder research.

“I’d say we’d be thrilled to see an easing of restrictions,” Youngerman said. “We can only do work here at the ‘U’ with federally approved stem cell lines. Allowing researchers to pursue other stem cell lines will increase the pace (of research).”

The current system – established by President George W. Bush in August 2001 – allows federally funded research to take place only on embryonic stem cells that existed at that time and that meet certain criteria.

This leaves 78 approved cell lines, of which only five have been widely distributed.

“It clearly has limited the kinds of research that can be done and how quickly it can be done,” said Jeffrey Kahn, the University’s Center for Bioethics program director.

“Embryonic stem cell research is crawling like a caterpillar,” Dr. Curt Civin – oncology and pediatrics professor at Johns Hopkins University – told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education on Sept. 25.

Several influential senators expressed concern that the current policy is too restrictive.

“The president took a significant step on Aug. 9 (2001) in permitting some federal funding,” said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn., and ranking minority member on the committee. “But I think the time has come to legislate in that field.”

Specter said at least 64 senators would support legislation changing the restrictions.

“There are real potential medical benefits out there, and we have to balance the medical benefits with the moral cost,” Kahn said. “The discussion has been to expand the use to embryonic stem cells to cells that were created for reproduction and are no longer needed.

“There are technical issues: Do these cells work for the research, and how many are there?” Kahn said.

Embryonic stem cell work has shown potential for advancing research in a variety of health areas, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, cancer and spinal cord injuries.

Dan Kaufman, a professor in the University’s Stem Cell Institute, said groups currently can develop their own lines but must do so with private funding.

That makes work at a public university almost impossible. For example, scientists cannot even study the cells in a facility funded in any way by federal money, even if the stem cell research is covered privately.

Researchers say that with greater latitude they could be able to develop stem cells from different genetic and ethnic groups.

“For certain purposes, one cell line may be better than another,” Kaufman said, adding that as research on genetic diseases and cell repair advances, “comparing a more diverse group will become of interest.”

Youngerman said she also saw the value in such a capability.

“That population (of stem cells) might be a good start, if they were accessible and available, but going forward you’d need a whole lot of diversity,” she said.

Kaufman – who recently came to the University from the University of Wisconsin, Madison – has access to a line of stem cells from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, one of the 14 institutions globally with federally approved stem cell lines.

The limited availability is what has researchers concerned.

“Optimistically, there are 70 cell lines,” Kaufman said. “Realistically there are about a dozen.”

Although Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, said the institute is “working diligently” to increase stem cell availability, and that the NIH funds more than 40 investigators for stem cell research, many scientists remain unsatisfied.

Civin said that more than a year after Bush’s decision, he has still not received his first line of stem cells and is negotiating with owners of stem cell lines in India.

Kahn said scientists are especially upset because they don’t see the logic behind the restrictions.

“I think it’s pretty hard to make the case the Bush decision was made on ethical grounds,” he said.

“It was really a compromise between researchers and conservative politicians on a policy,” Kahn said. “If it is wrong to kill human embryonic stem cells, then why is it okay to use stem cells that have already been killed?”

Specter said he had similar doubts.

“The opposition is focused on the possibility of life being produced by the embryos Ö but we know that thousands are thrown away, so it is my view that it is obviously preferable to use these embryos to save lives as opposed to discarding them,” Specter said.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas, also told the committee the current system “doesn’t seem to be making practical sense.”

Kahn compared the controversy surrounding the legislation to that of abortion.

“As a matter of overarching public policy, it’s very hard to say how far the government should go in dictating moral policy,” Kahn said.

And it is not just senators who are pushing for change. California, a state influential in national policy, passed a law last week explicitly allowing research on embryonic stem cells.

Experts say they think this law could open the door to state funding and stymie those who try to make privately funded research illegal.

“Before Sept. 11 of last year, I think this issue would have remained on the front burner of the policy-makers, but I think California is heating up the debate again,” Youngerman said.

Libby George covers national politics and welcomes comments at [email protected]