Stem-cell research is critical to developing treatments for Alzheimer's and other diseases. But debate grows ever whether use of human embryos is really necessary.
Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois announced that the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will more than double, from $13.6 billion in 1998 to $27.3 billion in 2003. "We must help research facilities find cures sooner for diseases like cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, Parkinson's and AIDS," House Speaker Hastert declared. Of course, few politicians support disease. But it was a sign, say Congress watchers, that the politics of a tax surplus will allow increased commitment to medical research.
However, as advancements in medical science leap toward providing better treatments, or even cures, new questions of morality and medical ethics abound. Perhaps no field is fraught with more dynamic possibility and moral concern than "stem-cell" research.
Stem cells are the basis for every type of cell in the body. Many scientists believe they hold the key to developing treatments for autoimmune diseases, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and various forms of paralysis. In brief, there are three types of stem cells -- pluripotent, which give rise to most, but not all, tissues in an organism; totipotent, which have unlimited capabilities (i.e., a fertilized egg); and multipotent, which give rise to specialized cells (i.e., blood cells).
It long has been believed that pluripotent cells are the most useful for research because they can be coaxed to form a variety of cells. But these are embryonic stem cells "harvested" from aborted fetuses or embryos taken from a mother for in-vitro fertilization. The use of aborted human tissue has made stem-cell experiments morally controversial. Federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research has been illegal since Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Ark., attached an amendment to the fiscal 1996 Labor, Health and Human Services and Education appropriations bill prohibiting it. But privately funded research of this kind is not prohibited.
The prohibition was challenged in 1999 by the Clinton administration, which wrote new NIH guidelines permitting embryonic stem-cell research by federal agencies -- provided stem cells were extracted with private funds. Clinton's Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) also took the position that replication of embryonic cells did not constitute cloning because there was no "embryo."
The legality of these guidelines, which encourage research that creates a market for human embryonic cells, will be decided after the conclusion of a review process established by HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, whose recent congressional testimony did not tip the hat in either direction. An HHS spokesman tells Insight "no specific date has been set" for completing the review process, but both sides anticipate a summer decision.
In early March, a group of 80 Nobel laureates sent a letter to President George W. Bush urging his support of the Clinton guidelines. But more than 20 congressmen responded with a letter calling Bush's attention to "revolutionary nonembryonic human stem-cell research" being conducted by a joint U.S. Navy/NIH research team. Meanwhile, the public view of embryonic stem-cell research has been colored by celebrities, such as Parkinson's sufferer Michael J. Fox, creating the perception that to oppose this research is to oppose funding to cure terrible diseases.
"The key here is a lot of people say, `Well, you are against all stem-cell research.' That is not true.... What the media do not cover enough of are the success stories of the alternative research and some of the negatives which have been associated with the [embryonic stem-cell research]," says David Prentice, a professor of life sciences at Indiana State University and an adjunct professor of medical and molecular genetics at the University of Indiana School of Medicine. In that March 14 letter to Bush, for instance, the congressmen concluded, "Mr. …