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NIH received varied responses, some poignant, on stem-cell draft

Nancy Frazier O'Brien, Catholic News Service, July 12, 2009

President Obama issued Executive Order 13505 on March 9, 2009, to establish policy and procedures under which NIH (National Institutes of Health) will fund research in the area of embryonic stem cells. Previously, embryonic stem cell research was legal in the US, as long as it was not funded by the NIH. However, NIH funded research in embryonic stem cells could be conducted as long as it involved existing embryonic stem cell lines, and not creation of new ones. As a response to the Executive Order, the NIH generated draft Guidelines that would allow funding for research using human embryonic stem cells that were derived from embryos created by in vitro fertilization (IVF) for reproductive purposes and were no longer needed for that purpose.

There were approximately 49,000 comments sent into the NIH in response to a publicly available draft of the new guidelines to embryonic stem cell research (see for yourself at http://grants.nih.gov/stem_cells/web_listing.htm). According to the article by Nancy Frazier O'Brien of the Catholic News Service, although many of them were repetitive, some made clear the point that destruction of human embryos should not be permitted. For example, one comment was:

"As a mother of a child with juvenile diabetes, I certainly hope we find a cure for this terrible disease in her lifetime," wrote one woman. "However, I am not willing to sacrifice the life of ONE CHILD, let alone thousands or even more in the name of research.

Currently much research is being performed on embryonic stem cells in order to develop treatments and eventually cures for diseases that currently are incurable. At least this dream is what inspires many to support embryonic stem cell research. Unfortunately, much of the political debate, at least in our opinion, seems to be just that: politics.

The whole purpose of medical research is the development of new treatment that help people. This is not to say that there is something wrong with doing research for the sake of doing research. After all, many of the greatest advancements of humanity came about by accident when people were not looking for them. So there is a point to doing basic research for the sake of basic research. However, the media and the political debates around embryonic stem cells are giving the impression that if people do not support embryonic stem cells, they are not supporting cures for their children with diabetes, or their parents with Alzheimer's or Michael J Fox's Parkinson's. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth.

The field of embryonic stem cell research is based on the finding that if one takes a fertilized egg and extracts specific cells after the fertilized egg has developed to a certain point, these cells, can give rise to every cell in the body. Interestingly, these "master cells" can be grown in high quantities under special conditions so that they can be used for experiments. For example, these embryonic stem cells can be treated with certain chemicals and make muscle cells in the test tube. These cells can be treated with other chemicals and make brain cells in the test tube. These cells can make almost any cell known to mankind when manipulated in the test tube. This sounds very exciting. This is why many people are very excited about embryonic stem cell research.

Now the problem is a little more complex.

When these "master cells", these embryonic stem cells, are placed into a mouse that has been induced to have a heart attack, what happens to these cells? Unfortunately, what happens, is that the mouse developed more inflammation, or some mice develop a cancer called a teratoma. So the beautiful and exciting work in the test tube, has so far largely failed to produce therapeutic results in animals. We know that cancer has been cured in animals for decades now, yet some many humans still die of cancer. If we can not induce cures in animals with embryonic stem cells, then how likely are we to induce cures in humans in the near future?

Exactly. The point that embryonic stem cell advocates make, the ones that have some familiarity with medical science (which most don't), is that just because embryonic stem cells are not useful today does not been that they will not be useful tomorrow. That research dollars need to be spent on embryonic stem cells so that one day they may be useful.

We can not argue with the point of supporting basic research. However, our position is that basic research should be seen as basic research and should not be transformed into a "religion".

There are several points that need to be made that are not made out of belief, or politics, or even religion, but are based on scientific facts:

Firstly, embryonic stem cells have made medical progress already. The creation of genetically engineered mice (knockouts and transgenics) was soley dependent on mouse embryonic stem cells. Practically everything we know scientifically about the function of molecules in living things has been derived from these animals. Accordingly, the blanket statement that embryonic stem cells have produced no benefits is incorrect.

Secondly, adult stem cells have been used already in patients with various degrees of success. For example, in patients with heart failure, analysis of over 1000 patients indicated overall improvement of heart function. Now where would money and funds be better spend? Taking something that seems to work and making it applicable to everyone, or chasing a distant dream?

Thirdly, embryonic stem cell research, from a scientific perspective, is rapidly becoming obsolete. The moral and ethical issues surrounding embryonic stem cells arise from the need to destroy the embryo to extract the embryonic stem cells. The new technology called inducible pluripotent stem cells (iPS) allows for the generation of brand new embryonic-like stem cells from skin, bone marrow, brain, and pretty much any other tissue. What many supporters of embryonic stem cells do not know is that iPS cells are more attractive to scientists because: a) they can be easily generated; b) they offer potential to make "brand new", "clean" cells, without having to rely on embryonic stem cells that are years old and have undefined characteristics; and c) iPS cells allow the possibility to make stem cells from the same patient.

On July 6th, 2009 Dr. Raynard S. Kington, acting NIH director, made final the guidelines and approved funding for research involving the creation of new ES cells. The question now becomes how much of the funding should support ES research and how much support with the other stem cell technologies be given, the technologies that actually seem to be inducing benefit in people today?



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