Skin Cell Study Might Have Limited Impact in Political Debate Over Stem Cell Research
Researchers from the Harvard Stem Cell Institute on Sunday announced they have been able to use existing human embryonic stem cells to transform human skin cells into cells resembling embryonic stem cells without destroying human embryos, the Washington Post reports. The study is scheduled to be published in the Aug. 28 edition of the journal Science.
Previously, the only technique known to develop embryonic stem cells that were a genetic match for a patient was to extract stem cells from a cloned human embryo created with that person's DNA. However, if further studies can prove the new technique valuable, "it could offer an end run around the heated social and religious debate that has for years overshadowed the field of human embryonic stem cell research," according the Post (Weiss, Washington Post, 8/22).
"If future experiments indicate that this reprogrammed state is retained after removing the embryonic stem cell DNA -- currently a formidable technical hurdle -- the hybrid cells could theoretically be used to produce embryonic stem cell lines that are tailored to individual patients without the need to create and destroy human embryos," a summary of the study said (AP/Yahoo! News, 8/22).
Harvard researchers used embryonic stem cells that had been created using federal and private funding allowed under President Bush's stem cell policy (Fox, Reuters, 8/22).
Bush on Aug. 9, 2001, announced a policy that allows federal funding for embryonic stem cell research only when conducted using stem cell lines created on or before that date. Congress is considering several bills that would alter Bush's policy in different ways.
One of those bills, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005 -- which has been approved by the House but has stalled in the Senate -- would allow federal funding for research using stem cells derived from embryos originally created for fertility treatments and willingly donated by patients. However, Bush has said he would veto the measure (California Healthline, 8/3).
Study leader Kevin Eggan said the newly developed technique is not ready for human clinical trials, and the use of discarded embryos from fertility clinics is still important (Reuters, 8/22).
The study's finding might have "little political impact" because it could be many years before the technique could be applicable to humans, the New York Times reports (Wade, New York Times, 8/23). The office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) on Monday said there will be a debate and a vote on the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005 next month.
Supporters of the bill say they have at least 60 votes for changing Bush's policy, including Frist. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), co-sponsor of the bill, said the study should not affect support for the measure (Kellman, AP/Las Vegas Sun, 8/22). However, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) said the reprogrammed skin cells offer an alternative "so we can proceed without destroying human life" (Vergano, USA Today, 8/23).
Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the study might be a step toward scientific advances that could end the use of human embryos for research purposes, adding, "In science, there's always more than one way to skin a cat. We want those ways found without skinning human embryos."
However, Eggan said the technique the researchers used to reprogram the skin cells "still carries the same moral burden" for people "who have fundamental objections to the destruction of embryos" because embryonic stem cells are needed for the procedure (Bor/O'Brien, Baltimore Sun, 8/23).
James Greenwood, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said, "If this new avenue is useful, that's wonderful. But it would be a colossal mistake for any member of the United States Congress to pretend he or she knows enough about this process to foreclose any other process."
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said the study is "confirmation we will see breakthroughs without compromising ethical standards" (Connolly, Washington Post, 8/23).