Where Stem Cell Research Stands

Political Debates and Ethical Fears Continue

WASHINGTON, D.C., SEPT. 14, 2002 (Zenit.org).- It’s been more than a year since President George W. Bush announced limits on federal funding for research using human embryonic stem cells. In his announcement Aug. 9, 2001, the U.S. leader restricted funding to just over 60 groups of stem cells. Since then debate, and research, has intensified in many countries.

The Washington Post reported last Aug. 6 that only nine research laboratories applied for a first round of federal grants under the new guidelines. Some researchers worry that other countries are leaving the United States behind, the newspaper said.

But Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops welcomed the moderate pace of research. “It is controversial research and I think rightly so,” Doerflinger said. “And it is one factor that scientists and investors do and should take into account.”

In any case, restrictions only apply to federal financing, observed the New York Times on Aug. 7. Moreover, last March the National Institutes of Health determined that federally financed researchers could also study new human stem cell lines, as long as that they do not mix their federal and private money.

Debates in other countries

In Australia, the federal Parliament has started debating stem cell research and cloning. Under the proposal made by Primer Minister John Howard, research using “leftover” embryos from in-vitro fertilization treatments could go ahead. The proposed law would, however, exclude the creation of embryos for research.

As Parliament prepared to consider the issue, a rally was held Aug. 11 in Sydney protesting the use of human embryos for research. “No civilized society has the right to reduce the status of a human being to the level of an experimental tool or laboratory rat,” federal Senator Brian Harradine, an Independent, was quoted as saying in the next day’s Sydney Morning Herald.

Speakers at the event included the Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson, Sydney’s Catholic Archbishop George Pell, his Anglican counterpart Peter Jensen, and several members of Parliament.

Debate continues in the lower house on the legislation, while the Senate has asked a committee to report on the matter by Oct. 24. All parties are allowing a conscience vote on the bill.

In Canada, authorities authorized stem cell research six months ago. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research issued federal guidelines allowing it to fund scientists performing research on human embryos left over from abortions or fertility treatments, the Globe and Mail reported March 5.

The method chosen to allow research drew criticism from opposition parties as well as from members of the ruling Liberal Party. “It is the role of Parliament and the public, not researchers, to determine the ethical limits to research or the application of genetic knowledge to the delivery of public health, said Paul Szabo, a Liberal member of Parliament.

Germany’s Parliament, after a heated debate lasting months, gave final approval in April to imports of human stem cells. The law allows imports of already-produced stem cells for projects of “overwhelming significance” where no other research method can be used, the Associated Press reported April 25. It upholds a ban on creating embryo cells in Germany purely for research.

In the European Union, funding of stem cell research has been put on hold. At the end of July, a Danish official announced that the 15-nation bloc would delay financing of human embryo and stem cell research through 2003, Reuters reported July 31. Denmark is now occupying the rotating EU presidency.

EU funding will be frozen while bioethical guidelines are being formulated on research involving human embryos and human embryonic stem cells, noted an official statement.

For the coming four to five years, 2.15 billion euro ($2.09 billion) are earmarked for health-related genetic research. Out of this, around 300 million euro would go to research on aborted embryos and those left over from in-vitro fertilization. National governments will not be bound by the EU decision, however; they are free to spend their domestic research budgets as they see fit.

The United Kingdom, in fact, has gone ahead with its research. The London Telegraph reported March 2 that the first licenses were granted to allow experiments on stem cells. Applications from the Center for Genome Research in Edinburgh and from Guy’s Hospital and King’s College, London, won approval from the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority.

Also, the UK National Institute for Biological Standards and Control awarded a £2.6 million ($4 million) contract to the Medical Research Council to set up Europe’s first stem cell bank, BBC reported Sept. 9. The bank will hold new and existing adult, fetal and embryonic stem cell lines.

The ProLife Alliance assailed the decision. “Like every caring member of society we want to see ethical cures for human disease,” the group said. “But this bank will also be harvesting human stem cells from the fetus and the embryo, and these can only be obtained through the deliberate destruction of human life.”

The promise of adult stem cells

An alternative to destroying embryos is using adult stem cells. The past year has seen a constant stream of reports on promising research in this area. The magazine Nature reported in its June 21 issue, for instance, that a team of scientists “has compelling evidence that they have isolated a stem cell from adult human bone marrow that can produce all the tissue types in the body, from blood to muscle to nerve.”

The Lancet medical journal also published a study with positive results, the Associated Press reported Aug. 8. Researchers had success in creating new blood vessels, after injecting patients’ own stem cells into their leg muscles, thus eliminating pain from bad circulation and helping to prevent gangrene or amputations.

German scientists, meanwhile, have successfully used stem cells harvested from patients’ own bone marrow to repair or limit damage caused by heart attacks, the Wall Street Journal reported Sept. 3. The study is published by Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.

Not all experiments using adult stem cells have had success. The Aug. 23 number of the magazine Science published research that showed problems in treatments with mice. Scientists tried to use adult bone marrow to develop brain cells, but without positive results.

However, the lead author of the study, Dr. H. David Shine of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, told Reuters Health on Aug. 22 that these results are far from the final word on the potential of adult bone marrow cells in treating brain injury. Much more work must be done, he said.

And just this week there was positive news on helping adult stem cells regenerate the brain. Researchers, led by neuroscientist Simon Koblar of the University of Adelaide, say they have discovered a neural “guidance mechanism” that directs the migration of stem cells in the brain, the Sydney Morning Herald reported Sept. 10.

In areas of the brain damaged by, for example, a stroke, Parkinson’s disease or accident-related trauma, it may be possible to use the guidance mechanism to redistribute the patients’ own stem cells to the damaged area and repair it, Dr. Koblar said.

“Research or experimentation on the human being cannot legitimate acts that are in themselves contrary to the dignity of persons and to the moral laws,” notes the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2295. Safeguarding this principle is more important than ever in this rapidly developing area.

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