Stem Cell Study Raises Questions About Federal Funding
A study published in the Aug. 24 edition of the journal Nature describes a technique that could derive human embryonic stem cells without destroying the embryo, but the White House on Wednesday issued a statement saying that "[a]ny use of human embryos for research purposes raises serious ethical concerns," the Washington Post reports (Weiss, Washington Post, 8/24).
In the study, Robert Lanza -- medical director of Advanced Cell Technology, which maintains offices in California and Massachusetts -- and colleagues described the technique as removing a single cell -- known as a blastomere -- from a three-day-old embryo with eight to 10 cells and using a biochemical process to create embryonic stem cells from the blastomere, the Los Angeles Times reports. Researchers removed 91 blastomeres from 16 thawed embryos donated by fertility clinic patients and found that more than half of the blastomeres began to multiply and that in two cases the blastomeres became embryonic stem cells.
The method of removing a cell from the embryo is based on a technique that usually is used to test the cell for genetic deficiencies (Kaplan, Los Angeles Times, 8/24).
Lanza said that the research destroyed some of the embryos used but that single-cell extractions that leave the embryo unharmed should be feasible in the future (Hamilton, Wall Street Journal, 8/24). In addition, the researchers wrote that single cells taken from three-day-old embryos "have never been shown to have the intrinsic capacity to generate a complete organism in any mammalian species" (Cook, Boston Globe, 8/24).
The White House statement said, "The president is hopeful that, with time, scientists can find ways of deriving cells like those now derived from human embryos but without the need for using embryos" (Washington Post, 8/24).
Peter Watkins, a White House spokesperson, added, "This technique does not resolve" ethical concerns about embryonic stem cell research, "but it is encouraging to see scientists at least make serious efforts to move away from research that involved the destruction of embryos" (Boston Globe, 8/24).
James Battey, head of NIH's Stem Cell Task Force, said he is not yet sure if the method reported by Lanza and colleagues would be eligible for federal funding under current regulations, the New York Times reports (Wade, New York Times, 8/24). Battey said NIH would ask HHS' general counsel for a legal opinion if researchers applied for grants using the technique.
According to the Post, policymakers will need to consider restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, as well as a congressional rule preventing any appropriations to HHS for the purpose of research "in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death."
Battey said the process is a "derivation process, so it's unclear to me where the ... policy stands," adding, "[I]t's not a scientific call. It's a legal call" (Washington Post, 8/24).
Advanced Cell Technology's announcement marks "an impressive advance, but scientists -- and society -- would be better off if they could spend more time searching for ways to cure some of humankind's most debilitating diseases and less time trying to satisfy the demands of politics," a Los Angeles Times editorial states.
According to the editorial, "scientists have already gone to great lengths to answer political objections to their work." The editorial concludes, "It's more important to focus on stem cell research on saving lives, not on appeasing a minority of religious conservatives" (Los Angeles Times, 8/24).
Several broadcast programs reported on the study:
- ABCNews' "World News Tonight": ABCNews' Tim Johnson reports on the study (Johnson, "World News Tonight," ABCNews, 8/23). Video of the segment is available online.
- NBC's "Nightly News": NBC's Robert Bazell reports on the study (Bazell, "Nightly News," NBC, 8/23). The complete segment is available online in Windows Media.
- NPR's "All Things Considered": The segment includes comments from Battey; Kass; Arnold Kriegstein, neural stem cell researcher and director of the University of California-San Francisco's Institute for Regenerative Medicine; and Lanza (Boyce, "All Things Considered," NPR, 8/23). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer. Audio from the podcast of the journal Nature of Lanza discussing his team's process is available online in RealPlayer.
- NPR's "Morning Edition": The segment includes comments from Lanza and Kathy Hudson, director of the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University (Inskeep, "Morning Edition," NPR, 8/24). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.