By Kim Coghill
WASHINGTON ¿ A National Institutes of Health study concluding that more research is needed to determine which type of stem cells are the most useful was released Wednesday around the same time that President Bush ally Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said he supports stem cell research ¿ with conditions.
Frist, the only physician in the Senate and an avowed pro-lifer, said he supports federally funded embryonic and adult stem cell research so long as it falls within a ¿carefully regulated, fully transparent framework.¿
Meanwhile, the NIH study, commissioned by Tommy Thompson, secretary of Health and Human Services, who reportedly supports stem cell research, does not recommend one way or another whether the government should pay for such research.
Instead, the 200-page report explains what scientists have learned about stem cell research and its potential, and what still is unknown. In its summary, the report concludes that ¿it is impossible to predict which stem cells ¿ those derived from the embryo, the fetus or the adult ¿ or which methods for manipulating the cells, will best meet the needs of basic research and clinical applications.¿ The report goes on to say answers to the unknown ¿clearly lie in conducting more research.¿
Against this backdrop, Bush continues to wrestle with whether he should allow the government to pay for research on these potentially valuable stem cells derived from four- to five-day-old embryos. As the law stands now, the government will pay for research on embryonic or pluripotent stem cells, as long as someone in private industry pays to collect them.
Many scientists believe that embryonic stem cells hold the key to replacing cells lost in diseases such as Parkinson¿s, Alzheimer¿s, diabetes, chronic heart disease, end-stage kidney disease, liver failure and cancer.
The proposal drawn up by the Frist team supports the law as it stands now, but adds a few extra points.
For example, Frist recommends banning federal funding for creating human embryos solely for the purpose of research. Last week, the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine in Norfolk, Va., paid women between $1,500 and $2,000 each to donate eggs to be used to create human embryos for research. (See BioWorld Today, July 13, 2001.)
Frist¿s rules avoid that kind of payment by limiting federal funding to blastocysts (inner cell mass of the early embryo) that otherwise would be discarded, and he would require informed consent from the donors.
Both the NIH and Frist touch upon the argument of studying adult stem cells as opposed to the embryonic type. The NIH says that the two types ¿differ in important ways.¿ And it is not known to what extent the different types can be used in development of cell-based therapies to treat disease, the NIH says.
Adult stem cells are capable of making identical copies of themselves, but a pluripotent stem cell has the ability to grow into more than 200 different known cell types. Pluripotent stem cells are found in embryos and fetal tissue.
Because there remain questions surrounding usefulness of adult stem cells, Frist¿s proposal recommends increased federal funding for research on these types of stem cells to determine their potential.
¿I am fully aware and supportive of the advances being made each day using adult stem cells,¿ Frist said in a prepared statement. ¿It is clear, however, that research using the more versatile embryonic stem cells has greater potential than research limited to adult stem cells and can, under the proper conditions, be conducted ethically.¿
Under the Frist proposal, the federal government would fund embryonic stem cell research for five years to ensure Congressional oversight, and the government would restrict embryonic stem cells derived from blastocysts to a limited number of cell lines.
According to The Washington Post, Bush is looking to Frist, a world-renowned heart surgeon, for guidance on the controversial stem cell issue.
But even if Bush decides to ban all funding related to the research, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said he will consider legislation authorizing the funding.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) supports the funding and former first lady Nancy Reagan has asked Bush to continue the funding. Former President Ronald Reagan suffers from Alzheimer¿s.
But others, including Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) oppose the funding.