By Lisa Seachrist
WASHINGTON ¿ With the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) working to evaluate the appropriate level of oversight for research using human embryonic stem (ES) cells, a group of 73 scientists ¿ 67 of whom have earned Nobel Prizes, in disciplines ranging from biology to physics to economics ¿ published a letter endorsing a plan to permit federal funding of such research.
Their letter, in the March 19 issue of Science magazine, calls on Congress to support National Institutes of Health (NIH) director Harold Varmus¿ opinion that current law does not prohibit research on human ES cells.
¿We just wanted to show that the scientific community is unified in its support of federal funding for stem cell research,¿ said Robert Lanza, corresponding author and senior director of tissue engineering and transplant medicine at Advanced Cell Technology Inc., in Worcester, Mass. ¿And that unanimity comes from all disciplines of science, not just physiology and medicine.¿
In January, Varmus said that, following a review of the legal basis for funding human ES cell work by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) general counsel, Harriet Rabb, he had decided that the rules governing human fetal tissue research and human embryo research did not prevent federally funded researchers from using the cells.
Human ES cells were discovered in November 1998 by two teams of scientists who tore down the boundaries of biomedical research by supplying the research community with pluripotent human stem cells ¿ cells which, lacking a specific destiny, could become any cell type in the body.
The scientists echoed many in the research community when they wrote of the unlimited promise these research tools offer. Researchers see these cell lines as a means to develop truly useful tissue-based therapies ¿ from growing nerve cells to reversing spinal cord injuries to growing new insulin-producing cells for diabetics.
Therapeutic Benefits Outweigh Objections
¿For me, it¿s inconceivable that anyone who has seen the devastation of diabetes, Parkinson¿s [disease] or Alzheimer¿s [disease], could be against stem-cell research,¿ Lanza said. ¿By helping to unravel the processes of cell differentiation we may develop therapies to prevent birth defects and cure cancers.¿
However, many people do have problems with using federal funds for such research. The problem lies not with the cells themselves, which can¿t produce a human being, but with the origin of these cell lines. The cell lines were derived from aborted fetuses and leftover embryos, following successful in vitro fertilization attempts.
Federal law already addresses ways in which federal funds may be used to conduct research with fetal tissue. But federal researchers are prohibited from conducting research that creates or destroys a human embryo. That ban has been attached the Health and Human Services appropriations legislation every year since 1995, following a report by the NIH¿s embryo-research panel, which permitted some embryo research.
Responding to the potential funding for this research, 70 members of Congress signed a letter urging the secretary of DHHS to reverse Varmus¿ decision permitting federal funding of the research. They claimed it would ¿violate the letter and the spirit of the federal law.¿
At the same time, Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) have voiced their support for stem cell research.
¿I do think that we have the support of a great majority of the public,¿ said Lanza. ¿But we don¿t want to underestimate the opponents [of] stem-cell research. Showing our support for the work helps.¿
Federal Funding Not BIO¿s Fight, Organization Says
The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) also voiced its support for stem-cell research in a letter to NBAC Chair Harold Shapiro. While not coming down on either side of the federal funding debate, BIO urged NBAC to weigh the potential of the research when making any decisions.
¿We are deferring to DHHS on the federal funding issue,¿ said Suzanne Tomlinson, bioethics counsel for BIO. ¿We do, in general, feel that federal funding for biomedical research is a good thing. However, since the research to date has been done in the private sector, we don¿t feel that it¿s our fight.¿
In its letter, BIO also urges NBAC to recognize that the FDA has jurisdiction over any clinical research using the stem cell lines. As a result, BIO believes it ¿would be unnecessary for researchers who are not receiving public funding for stem cell research to submit basic research protocols to a body that would oversee federally funded research.¿
Tomlinson noted that the letter refers to the use of existing stem-cell lines, not the derivation of new lines.
BIO called for NBAC to recognize the importance of intellectual property in the biotechnology industry, and urged the commission to respect the need for patenting stem-cell technology.