President’s Council on Bioethics Report Examines Issue of Stem Cell Research
As expected, the President's Council on Bioethics on Thursday released a report outlining possible ways to move forward with embryonic stem cell research without "upsetting ethical concerns" by describing methods for producing stem cells without destroying human embryos, Reuters reports. The report was released while Congress is considering whether to loosen federal restrictions on the research (Fox, Reuters, 5/12).
President Bush's embryonic stem cell policy -- which he announced on Aug. 9, 2001 -- limits federally funded embryonic stem cell 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 federal funding are not biologically diverse, are contaminated with nonhuman material and are useless for research into possible cures for degenerative diseases (California Healthline, 5/12).
"Much of the ethical controversy over stem cells derives from the fact that, until now, the only way to obtain human pluripotent stem cell lines has been to derive them from living human embryos by a process that necessarily destroys the embryos," the report says, adding, "If a way could be found to derive such stem cell lines without creating and destroying human embryos, a good deal of that ethical controversy would subside" (Reuters, 5/12).
The 18-member council -- which comprises bioethicists, researchers, legal experts and others -- suggests four alternatives to current stem cell research techniques that create an embryo through cloning or use an embryo discarded from fertility clinics, the Washington Post reports. "Stem cells might be obtainable from dead embryos; from living embryos, by nondestructive biopsy; from bioengineered embryo-like artifacts; and from reprogrammed adult somatic cells," the report says (Washington Post, 5/13). However, the report concludes that two of the alternatives -- taking cells from living embryos through nondestructive biopsy and from bioengineered embryo-like artifacts -- still could be viewed as "ethically problematic," the New York Times reports.
Of the remaining alternatives, the idea for using cells from a dead embryo evolved from the fact that in fertility treatments, some embryos stop undergoing cell division and are considered dead. Although this sometimes happens because the embryo has damaged cells, which would be unusable, the council said it might be possible to salvage viable stem cells from these embryos. The second method deemed ethically acceptable is to take stem cells from reprogrammed adult somatic cells, an idea derived from the technique used for cloning animals, according to the Times.
When the nucleus from an adult cell is inserted into an unfertilized egg, the egg can make the nucleus return to an "embryonic state," the Times reports. The council recommends finding the underlying factors, possibly chemical signals, that are responsible for this change and using them to convert adult cells into stem cells.
Two of the three research scientists on the council have "vigorously rejected" the report's recommendations, the Times reports (Wade, New York Times, 5/13). Michael Gazzaniga, a professor of neurology at Dartmouth College, in a rebuttal to the council report said the proposed alternatives are "high-risk gambles" and evade the question as to whether the United States should endorse embryonic stem cell research as it currently is done or whether the country will "remain hostage to the arbitrary views of those with certain beliefs about the nature of life and its origins" (California Healthline, 5/12).
Dr. Janet Rowley, a cell biologist at the University of Chicago, said it is "totally baffling" to let healthy embryos die instead of using them to help other patients. The "sharp division" between scientists and bioethicists on the council is "unusual," the Times reports.
Council Chair Dr. Leon Kass said the council has a more balanced perspective, with more members who are "pro-life" than past councils, and that it is "more representative of the nation as whole." He added, "I'm proud of this council in that we were by design created to reflect the deeper differences in American society and, without papering over those differences, we have found a way to move the discussion forward" (New York Times, 5/13).
"It remains to be seen whether any of these proposals will succeed scientifically, and more discussion is surely required on some of the ethical issues we have identified," the report says. Sean Tipton, a spokesperson for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, said, "We would agree that you ought to pursue all the alternatives. But we think scientific merit ought to drive those decisions." He added that research using live human embryos still holds "the most promise" for developing cures for some diseases, according to Reuters (Reuters, 5/12).
However, some scientists "are impatient to start research," and several of the council's proposed alternatives could "take many years to be explored," according to the Times. Rowley said it would be the "height of folly" to allow "healthy surplus embryos" to be discarded, the Times reports (New York Times, 5/13).
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) on Thursday said the chamber will vote before the August recess on legislation (HR 810) that would loosen federal restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research, CQ HealthBeat reports. The measure 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. Under the measure, patients could not be compensated for embryo donation and would have to have full knowledge of how the donated embryos would be used (CQ HealthBeat, 5/12).
The legislation would not allow federal funding for embryonic stem cell research on stem cell lines or embryos created expressly for research purposes (California Healthline, 5/12). DeLay said the vote on the bill would come "sooner rather than later." The legislation has nearly 200 cosponsors, according to CQ HealthBeat (CQ HealthBeat, 5/12).