By Lisa Seachrist

Washington Editor

WASHINGTON — The 106th Congress will not be sworn in until January, but some members already have begun to reconsider the congressional ban on federal funding of human embryo experiments, in light of new advances in stem-cell research.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, gathered bioethicists and the scientists responsible for the discoveries in order to examine whether federal funds should support stem-cell research, which holds the promise of regrowing tissues to treat a host of degenerative conditions, from Parkinson's disease to diabetes.

"The ban was enacted without the new information that we have," Specter said. "Now, we have to take a closer look at the ban. This science is obviously on the cutting edge, and we need to know whether federal funding is appropriate."

For the past four years, Congress has banned the use of federal funds for human embryo research in an appropriations rider that is annually renewed. That action was taken in response to a 1994 report by the Human Embryo Research Panel, appointed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), outlining the scientific and ethical review that would permit research involving ex utero preimplantation embryos.

Such a ban may have been easier to support when human embryonic stem cells had a science fiction-type existence. However, the recent announcements by three different sets of scientists — who said not only that human embryonic stem (ES) cells exist, but they have been isolated and purified — changes the landscape.

NIH Funds Needed To Maximize Stem Cells' Potential

Those announcements had the scientists who made them predicting that within the next several years, the stem cells will be used to screen drugs for potential side effects. Cellular therapies will follow. The scientists predicted Parkinson's disease will be the first successfully treated.

But the scientists also warned that these developments won't occur without NIH-sponsored research.

"The problem is that early, basic research is always going to be under-funded by the private sector, because this type of research does not get products onto the market quickly enough," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). "The only ways to ensure that this research is conducted is to allow the NIH to support it."

Human ES cells are those primordial cells that result from the early divisions of a newly fertilized egg. They stand near the base of the human developmental tree, and have the capacity to form any cell or tissue in the body. ES cells cannot generate a complete human being, and are not considered embryos or organisms. So, ES cells themselves provide little moral difficulty that could hinder federal funding of research on them.

Instead, it's their origins that are problematic. They have been derived from the inner blastocyst of an embryo left over after in vitro fertilization efforts, from the urogenital ridge of an aborted fetus and from the somatic cell nuclear transfer of a human somatic cell nucleus into an enucleated cow egg.

The status of embryos and fetal tissue gives many pause. An embryo, after all, is at the very least the promise of a new creative life — for some, it is regarded as that life, from its inception. Devising an acceptably ethical means for conducting research with such material, or research on material derived from an embryo, is tricky business.

In 1994, the Human Embryo Research Panel concluded: "It is in the public interest that the availability of Federal funding and regulation should provide consistent ethical and scientific review for this area of research.

The panel believes that because the preimplantation embryo possesses qualities requiring moral respect, research involving the ex utero preimplantation embryo must be carefully regulated and consistently monitored."

Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics of the University of Pennsylvania Health System, in Philadelphia, outlined four principles by which such research could ethically take place, noting that "we do not live in a world of absolutes."

Caplan suggested that the research must follow the most basic tenet of all medical research, and seek to achieve the greatest benefit with the least amount of harm. In addition, he pointed out that tradeoffs are inevitable but must be made; that the process of such research requires moral guidance; and that it is better to do such research in public, with oversight, than privately.

Noting that tens of thousands of spare embryos are currently frozen in liquid nitrogen in the U.S. and fated for destruction, Caplan questioned the morality of refusing to use these tissues to conduct research that could ultimately cure a person suffering from a debilitating disease or injury.

"We should not hold that person hostage to the our concern about these tissues that are going to be destroyed anyway," Caplan said. "Funding this research ensures that it receives adequate oversight."

Embryo Policy 'A Moral Decision,' Says Activist

Richard Doerflinger, associate director for policy development at the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, disagreed with Caplan.

"In deciding whether to subsidize various forms of human experimentation, legislators are not merely making an economic decision to allocate limited funds," he said. "On behalf of all citizens who pay taxes, they are making a moral decision."

In any event, the debate is unlikely to reach an early conclusion. The National Bioethics Advisory Commission will take up the ethics of research using ES cells during its next meeting Jan. 19 and 20, and will make a report on the issue sometime this coming spring.

Specter, however, said the Senate will not wait. "We aren't likely to be finished looking at the issue when the report comes out," he said. Although Harkin stated he sees no problem in funding research with ES cells, Specter said he was "not ready to leap to that conclusion." *