By Tom Still
MADISON – Before Congress takes its traditional August break, the Senate may help decide the future of federal support for human embryonic stem cell research. Let’s hope a scientifically sound and ethical resolution is reached – and that states such as Wisconsin follow the lead.
Just as Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature are divided over stem cell research, so are GOP leaders in Washington, where President Bush suffered a rare political defeat in May when the House of Representatives voted, 238-194, to allow federally-funded research on stem cells taken from human embryos.
The so-called Specter-Harkin bill is now before the Senate, where the goal of research advocates is to pass a bill that is acceptable to Bush – or so broadly supported by senators that it could stand up to a presidential veto.
The former strategy is preferable, because there’s little to be gained by backing Bush into a corner. Even if two-thirds of the Senate (67 of 100 members) voted to override a presidential veto, it doesn’t appear that a two-thirds margin is realistic in the 435-member House.
More important, the time is right for a lasting solution that could help align public sentiment about the medical promise of stem-cell research with the ethical concerns of those who believe federal dollars should not be used to destroy an embryo.
Human embryonic stem cells are the building blocks for all other cells, tissues, bones and organs in our bodies. They evolve rapidly from conception, and scientists had trouble understanding how they worked until UW-Madison scientist James Thomson and his team found a way to isolate and “immortalize” stem cells in 1998. Using only embryos that would have been discarded by fertility clinics, Thomson and other UW researchers developed a number of stem cell lines that are still being studied today.
Cures are still many years away, but enough work has been done for scientists in Wisconsin and elsewhere to be optimistic on several fronts. First, the study of stem cells is unlocking secrets about how the human body works. Second, stem cell research may lead to more accurate and dependable diagnostics and targeted drugs. Finally, such research could eventually lead to treatments for heart disease, neural disorders, spinal cord injuries, diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
As the Senate vote nears, the White House is trying to peel away votes from the stem cell bill by offering alternative legislation to fund promising but unproven studies. The new research techniques fall into two major categories. In the first, a single cell is removed from a days-old embryo created for fertility purposes and coaxed to become a self-replicating colony of stem cells, leaving the rest of the embryo to develop normally.
A second approach, called “altered nuclear cell transfer,” involves creation of an embryo that lacks a gene necessary for the development of a placenta. Because a placenta is necessary for the embryo to be implanted in a woman’s womb, the altered embryo would be genetically incapable of becoming a fetus.
Senate advocates of stem cell research say they’re happy to consider all types of stem-cell research, but they don’t want to slow progress by ruling out a proven avenue. At a hearing last week in Washington, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn., co-author of the stem cell bill, held up an hourglass to dramatize the urgency of finding cures for some of humankind’s most devastating diseases. Specter, who is being treated for cancer, said he got the hourglass from a constituent with Parkinson’s disease. “He says: My life is drifting away just as the sands of this hourglass, and what are you doing about it?” Specter said.
While scientists in some nations are using questionable techniques to create cells for research, the leading scientific advisory board in the United States recently released guidelines designed to ensure ethical research. Along with pressure from patient-care advocacy groups, those guidelines – which are nearly identical to current practices at the UW-Madison – are turning some congressional heads.
Compromise is still not at hand, but Congress appears to be having a robust debate about ethics and the ever-growing frontiers of bioscience. Lawmakers in Wisconsin, who are grappling with many of the same issues, will be watching closely.