Federal agencies, Capitol Hill and pro-lifers are debating the alleged necessity of using human embryos in research, weighing ethics along with the possible medical benefits.
The debate about the ethics of human-embryo stem-cell research is heating up in the nation's capital. This research burst on the medical scene in late 1998 and prompted the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, to issue draft guidelines in December 1999 to regulate how such research should proceed. The public is invited to voice comments and concerns before the regulations become administrative law.
While patient-advocacy groups, scientists and some legislators tout the benefits of embryo stem-cell research, others are concerned that amid the hype the NIH is misinterpreting the law limiting the use of human embryos for experiments while failing to so much as acknowledge that breakthroughs in adult stem-cell research may make the destruction of living embryos unnecessary. As Insight reported last summer, stem cells have the remarkable capacity to develop into most of the tissues and organs in the body (see "Give a Life, Take a Life," Aug. 16, 1999). The possible medical benefits for patients with chronic illness are staggering, as scientists search for new ways to ease suffering, prolong life and defy the aging process.
The problem comes when some scientists insist that the research be conducted using materials cut from living human embryos -- an activity Congress banned in 1995. Last year the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, the federal agency that oversees NIH, decided to reinterpret the congressional ban. HHS concluded that because isolated stem cells from human embryos do not have the capacity to develop into a human being, they are not subject to the ban. The HHS general counsel determined that as long as someone else was responsible for destroying the embryo and extracting the cells, federally funded researchers who used the stem cells were not violating the law.
Pro-lifers are furious. "Congress outlawed federal funding for harmful embryo research in 1996 and has maintained that prohibition ever since," says Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas. "The intent of Congress is clear: If a research project requires the destruction of [living] human embryos, no federal funds should be used for that project." And Brownback is just one of many lawmakers concerned that the guidelines do not regulate stem-cell research but instead regulate the means by which researchers may obtain and destroy frozen human embryos while continuing to receive federal funds.
In early February, Brownback and a group of 20 other senators signed a letter calling on NIH to withdraw the new guidelines. The senators urged NIH to refocus on adult stem-cell research, which does not require destroying human embryos. Although the senators warned NIH that the guidelines violate congressional intent and will not be tolerated, NIH has not moved to withdraw them. NIH has not responded to numerous letters from Brownback's office. Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania disagrees with this group of senators and offered a bill at the end of January to legitimize embryo stem-cell research, thus endorsing NIH's position.
David Prentice is a professor of life sciences at Indiana State University and an adjunct professor of medical and molecular genetics at Indiana University School of Medicine. He cautions against the use of embryo stem cells for tissue regeneration and advocates the use of adult stem cells instead. "Within the last two years, a tremendous variety of adult stem cells has been reported," Prentice says.
Adult stem cells have been found in skin, bone marrow and the bloodstream. Scientists recently uncovered neural stem cells in the brain. The discovery of stem cells in the cornea is good news for those who need corneal transplants. Corneal stem cells have been used to treat patients in whom traditional corneal transplants were unsuccessful. …