A Comparative Look at the U.S and British Approaches to Stem Cell Research

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INTRODUCTION

On August 9, 2001, President George W. Bush announced that federal funding of stem cell research would be limited to research involving those cell lines that had been created prior to the date of his announcement. (1) His statement had a significant impact on stem cell research in the United States and brought to mind a number of questions. What are stem cells? Why is this research important? What is the impact of President Bush's restrictions on stem cell research in the United States? To answer the last question, it is useful to examine other countries' and their legislative bodies' approaches to stem cell research. Great Britain, in particular, has a much less restrictive approach to public funding of stem cell research and has even gone so far as to permit the cloning of embryos for research. (2) Many researchers feel that Great Britain's approach is less complicated and leads to more useful results than the United States approach dictated by President Bush. (3)

First, this comment provides a general overview of stem cell research--the types of stem cells, the sources of stem cells, and an analysis of these types and sources--and discusses the ethical issues surrounding this research. (4) This comment will then compare the U.S. and British approaches, analyzing them with a particular focus on various legislative and executive policy choices, the bases for these, and their impacts on the field of stem cell research. (5)

I. OVERVIEW OF STEM CELL RESEARCH

Stem cells have the ability to give rise to many types of cells in the human body. (6) Although stem cells' full potential remains unclear, researchers believe that these cells will have a remarkable impact on the treatment of various diseases and disorders. (7) In particular, stem cells could be used to generate various cells and tissues for transplantation. (8) For example, researchers hope "to develop heart muscle cells from human pluripotent stem cells and transplant them into the failing heart" muscles of heart attack victims. (9) Preliminary animal studies suggest that this type of research is feasible. (10)

A. Types of Stem Cells

Researchers have identified three different types of stem cells: unipotent, multipotent, and pluripotent cells. (11) While pluripotent cells have the potential to give rise to many different cell types, (12) multipotent cells give rise to certain types of cells (e.g., blood and skin stem cells) that perform specific functions, (13) and unipotent cells can give rise only to a single type of cell. (14) Another difference between these cell types is that unipotent and multipotent cells persist throughout life, whereas evidence suggests that pluripotent cells predominantly exist in embryos and fetuses. (15) Pluripotent stem cells also offer a greater potential for medical research, as they can divide indefinitely, self renew, and be stimulated into precursors for many different cell types. (16)

Stem cell research has a number of potential applications. First, stem cells could provide information about general human development--in particular, the factors that lead to cellular specialization. (17) Second, researchers could test the safety and efficacy of drugs using a human cell line prior to using animal or human subjects. (18) For example, a new medication could be tested on a human cell line modified to incorporate the particular disease that the medication is designed to treat. Third, stem cells could be used to generate cells and tissues to treat diseases and disorders that act to destroy or impair certain cell types and tissues. (19) These "cell therapies" offer great hope to persons suffering from disorders such as "Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis." (20)

B. Sources of Stem Cells

A number of sources of stem cells exist, but vary in terms of their versatility and usefulness. …