Creation of Genetically Matched Embryonic Stem Cell Lines Could Affect Congressional Debate
The announcement by South Korean scientists that they have created 11 genetically matched human embryonic stem cell lines could affect the debate in Congress over whether to loosen the Bush administration's restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, Reuters reports (Fox, Reuters, 5/19). Woo Suk Hwang, Shin Yong Moon and colleagues from Seoul National University in South Korea used the somatic cell nuclear transfer cloning technique to create 11 embryonic stem cell lines that are genetic matches to patients ranging in age from two to 56, according to a study published online on May 19 in the journal Science, the New York Times reports.
Somatic cell nuclear transfer works by inserting the genetic material from a patient's cell -- usually from a skin cell -- into an unfertilized egg from another person. The patient's genetic material incorporates into the egg and guides it into developing into an embryo that is a genetic match to the skin cell patient, according to the Times. Scientists then can harvest embryonic stem cells from the embryo -- destroying the embryo in the process -- that can be coaxed into turning into any type of cell in the body (Kolata/Stolberg, New York Times, 5/20).
The South Korean researchers began with 185 eggs donated by 18 women. Of those eggs, 31 grew into early embryos in laboratory dishes, and the researchers were able to extract 11 stem cell lines from the embryos, for a rate of one stem cell line for every 17 eggs. The technique was more efficient when the eggs were donated by younger women, with stem cells being extracted from eggs donated by women under age 30 at a rate of one stem cell line per 14 eggs, according to the Washington Post (Weiss, Washington Post, 5/20).
By producing stem cells that are the genetic match of patients, the researchers believe that such cells could be more effective in treating those patients because the cells are less likely to be rejected by their immune systems. The South Korean researchers earlier had created a single stem cell line from a cloned embryo, but their technique was "so onerous" that many scientists doubted that it could be useful for creating treatments, according to the New York Times (New York Times, 5/20).
However, the researchers believe the techniques described in the current study eventually could lead to treatments for a variety of conditions, including diabetes and Alzheimer's disease, the Baltimore Sun reports (O'Brien, Baltimore Sun, 5/20).
The new research likely will play a role in the congressional debate on a bill (HR 810) that would loosen the Bush administration's restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, according to the Christian Science Monitor (Spotts, Christian Science Monitor, 5/20).
The legislation, which could come to a vote next week in the House and is sponsored by Rep. Michael Castle (R-Del.), would allow researchers to receive federal funding for the study of embryonic stem cells derived from embryos created for fertility treatments and willingly donated by patients. The bill would not allow federal funding for embryonic stem cell research on stem cell lines or embryos created expressly for research purposes.
The current embryonic stem cell research policy -- which President Bush announced on Aug. 9, 2001 -- limits federal funding for the research to stem cell lines created on or before that date. Critics of Bush's policy have said that the embryonic stem cell lines available for federally funded research are not biologically diverse, are contaminated with nonhuman material and are useless for research into possible cures for degenerative diseases. Opponents of embryonic stem cell research say that it is immoral because embryos are destroyed in the process (California Healthline, 5/12).
"The arguments on both sides are going to grow in intensity," Kathy Hudson -- director of the Genetics & Public Policy Center, an independent research group financed by the Pew Charitable Trusts -- said (Hall, San Francisco Chronicle, 5/20).
Opponents of the measure have promised an "important and emotional" debate on the issue when it comes to the floor, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Nesmith, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 5/20).
President Bush might veto the measure if it passes both chambers, although a veto could have some "political risk" for Bush because the public widely supports embryonic stem cell research, according to the Wall Street Journal (Wysocki/McKinnon, Wall Street Journal, 5/20).
Rudolph Jaenisch, a co-founder of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, said the South Korean research will have a "major impact," adding, "The argument that it will not work in humans will not be tenable after this" (Neergaard, AP/Indianapolis Star, 5/20).
Some scientists said the research shows that embryonic stem cell research being applied to treat diseases "may be more practical than thought," according to Long Island Newsday. "Arguments about inefficiency will have much less force because of this paper," Charles Jennings, executive director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, said, adding, "It comes down to people's moral beliefs" (Nelson, Long Island Newsday, 5/20).
Kevin Eggan, a scientist at Harvard University, said that U.S. researchers will be "playing catch-up" to the South Koreans, adding, "They are the masters" (Cook, Boston Globe, 5/20).
Gerald Schatten, a University of Pittsburgh cloning researcher and co-author of the South Korea study, said, "This research brings science a giant step forward, toward the day when some of the most devastating diseases and injuries could be treated through the use of therapeutic stem cells," adding, "I thought these kinds of achievements wouldn't be done until many decades from now" (Wahlberg, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 5/19).
Richard Doerflinger, director of Pro-Life Activities at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, "Up until now, people were beginning to wonder whether human cloning for any purpose was feasible at all," adding, "This development makes it feasible enough to be a clear and present danger" (New York Times, 5/20).
Alison Murdoch of the Centre for Life in Newcastle, England, on Thursday announced that her team recently produced one cloned embryo but had not been able to extract stem cells from the embryo, according to the Financial Times. No scientists other than the South Koreans have been able to produce cloned embryonic stem cells (Cookson, Financial Times, 5/20).
The researchers said that their work will not make it easier for other scientists to do reproductive cloning, according to the Los Angeles Times. "Reproductive cloning is not our goal," Hwang said, adding, "Reproductive cloning is unsafe and unethical, and so it shouldn't be done in any country" (Kaplan, Los Angeles Times, 5/20).
Several broadcast programs reported on the study:
- ABCNews' "World News Tonight": The segment includes comments from George Daley, associate director of the stem cell program at Boston Children's Hospital and a member of the executive committee of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute; John Gearhart, director of the Division of Developmental Genetics at Johns Hopkins Medical Center; and David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences at Family Research Council (McKenzie, "World News Tonight," ABCNews, 5/19).
- NBC's "Nightly News": The segment includes comments from Schatten and Hwang (Bazell, "Nightly News," NBC, 5/19). The complete segment is available online in Windows Media.
- NBC's "Nightly News": The program also reported on Republicans' reconsideration of their position on federal funding for stem cell research. The segment includes comments from Castle, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) (Williams, "Nightly News," NBC, 5/19). The complete transcript and video of the segment in Windows Media is available online.
- NPR's "All Things Considered": The segment includes comments from Schatten; Hwang; and Leonard Zon, a pediatrician at Harvard University and president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (Harris, "All Things Considered," NPR, 5/19). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- NPR's "Morning Edition": The segment includes comments from Schatten; Mildred Cho, senior research scholar and associate director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University; and Hudson (Harris, "Morning Edition," NPR, 5/20). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- WBUR's "On Point": Guests on the program included Gareth Cook, science reporter for the Boston Globe; Daley; Hank Greely, a bioethicist at Stanford Law School; Hudson; and David Stevens, executive director of the Christian Medical & Dental Association (Young, "On Point," WBUR, 5/19). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer and Windows Media.