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Bush Vetoes Lab-Cash Kill Bill, And Promotes Non-Lethal Stem-Cell Research Instead

BY PAUL A. BARRA

REGISTER CORRESPONDENT

July 1-7, 2007 Issue | Posted 6/26/07 at 10:00 AM

 

WASHINGTON — President George Bush went one step beyond vetoing Congress’ latest attempt to fund embryo-destroying research.

He issued an executive order promoting ethical methods of finding cures using non-embryonic stem cells.

The embryonic stem-cell bill vetoed by Bush had passed on a 247-176 vote in the House and by 63-24 in the Senate, insufficient to override a presidential veto.

The bill would have transferred money withheld from taxpayers’ to pay scientists to perform fatal experiments on human embryos in labs, in order to create stem-cell lines from the embryos. Labs that create stem-cell lines from embryos are often called “fetal farms.”

Microbiology and embryology show that a human embryo is, from the moment of conception, a boy or a girl with his or her own unique DNA and normal human life expectancy.

The executive order, signed June 20, the same day the president issued the third veto of his presidency, directs the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institutes of Health to ensure that any human pluripotent stem-cell lines produced in ways that do not create, destroy or harm human embryos will be eligible for federal funding.

It also expands the National Institutes of Health’s Embryonic Stem Cell Registry — now to be called the Pluripotent Stem Cell Registry — to include all types of ethically produced human pluripotent stem cells.

Bush’s June 20 veto was of a bill similar to the one he vetoed last year. The legislation would have overturned his policy of Aug. 9, 2001, allowing funding of research using human embryonic stem-cell lines created prior to that date.

In vetoing the bill and announcing the new executive order, Bush said scientists are making advances using research methods that do not require the killing of embryos. His executive order pointed out that “the destruction of nascent life for research violates the principle that no life should be used as a mere means for achieving the medical benefit of another” and that “human embryos and fetuses, as living members of the human species, are not raw materials to be exploited or commodities to be bought and sold.”

He pointed to several recent advances, including the research of Kyoto University scientist Shinya Yamanaka. On June 7, Nature and Cell-Stem Cell magazines announced that Yamanaka and other teams of researchers induced normal skin cells in mice to act as stem cells. That is, the reprogrammed skin cells attained the potential to develop into any cell in the mouse’s body, a characteristic known as pluripotency.

News of the advance came just before Congress voted to overturn Bush’s policy. If Congress was not swayed by Yamanaka’s work, many scientists were.

“The power of the work that was published this week is that three competing labs tried the same experiment. Every test they put [the reprogrammed skin cells] through to see if they acted like embryonic stem cells, they passed,” cell biologist Kenneth Miller of Brown University said. “Exactly the right genes were turned on and exactly the right genes were turned off.”

Stem cells are undifferentiated, primitive cells that have the ability both to multiply and to differentiate into specific blood cells and other cell/tissue types. This ability allows them to replace cells that have died, and they have been used to replace defective cells and/or tissues.

Since pluripotent cells can mature into any type of cell, doctors hope to use them eventually to replace damaged or diseased tissue — a process known as regenerative medicine. The reprogrammed skin cells of the Kyoto approach would have the added advantage of being taken from the patient’s own body, so that immune rejection of the transplanted cells would not occur.

In addition, these cells — also called induced pluripotent stem cells — require only four genes for their transformed programming. The simplicity of the transformation amazed scientists, but, said Miller, “That’s how science is, enormously easy once you know about it.”

“The trouble is, we’re babes in the woods scientifically,” he said.

But the simple induced pluripotent stem cells represent one step out of the forest.

           

Caveats

None of this has been tried on humans yet, and there are some minor problems with the viruses used to transfer the genes needed to do the program changes, but the outlook is exciting to cell researchers.

That’s especially true when comparing Yamanaka’s technique to that needed for cloning, or somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), where the genetic material from a human egg is extracted and replaced with the genetic material of another body cell, such as the skin. The transformed egg is induced to divide, and becomes a human embryo.

Some scientists have a pragmatic quarrel with the technique.

“SCNT is scientifically sloppy,” Miller said. “We’re letting the egg cell do [the reprogramming] for us.”

Somatic cell nuclear transfer is also morally objectionable to the Church for several reasons. For one thing, the embryo is created in a lab, not as the result of conjugal love between a husband and wife. For another, the nascent human life is killed when its cells are extracted. And somatic cell nuclear transfer requires enormous numbers of human eggs and getting them can be exploitative, such as when poor women are paid for their eggs.

Stem-cell research done on leftover embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics also kills the human embryo when stem cells are taken from it.

Disputing the Church’s moral arguments are many disease advocacy groups, such as the American Diabetes Association, which favor embryonic stem-cell research to find potential cures. A member of Congress who sponsored legislation that would increase federal funding for such research is Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo. DeGette also has a daughter who is a Type 1 diabetic.

When contacted, a spokesman for DeGette referred to a statement she made on the floor of the House after passage of the bill June 7: “This new scientific advancement should not be used as an excuse to abandon other promising science, such as embryonic stem-cell research. The vast majority of scientists … agree that embryonic stem-cell research offers the greatest promise for developing treatments and cures for countless diseases and conditions.”

The evidence would seem to refute DeGette’s assertion, however.

Embryonic stem-cell research, which involves the killing of a unique human being in an attempt to cure different diseases, has proven not only destructive and costly, but has not produced a cure. Non-embryonic stem-cell research, which utilizes cells from adult tissues or umbilical cords, does not require the destruction of human life. It has proven successful in treating more than 70 different kinds of cancers and autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis.

Pope John Paul II said that all research using stem cells from human embryos is “morally unacceptable.”

In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, John Paul said, “This moral condemnation also regards procedures that exploit living human embryos and fetuses — sometimes ‘produced’ for this purpose by in vitro fertilization — either to be used as ‘biological material’ or as providers or organs or tissue for transplants in the treatment of certain diseases.

“The killing of innocent human creatures, even if carried out to help others, constitutes an absolutely unacceptable act.”

Yamanaka’s new technique requires neither eggs nor embryos.

“Morally, this is a superior method, absolutely,” said Marie Hilliard, director of bioethics and public policy at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia.

Hilliard also cited medical advances made using adult stem cells, but worries that the process of patenting cell cultures and other such monetary inducements may delay progress.

“Some researchers seem wedded to embryonic stem-cell research regardless of advances being made,” she said.

Miller, however, is optimistic that “within a decade the controversy will disappear, and stem-cell research will become a moot point.”

Said Miller, “I’m optimistic because I think that the possibilities of research that are opened up by this area will ultimately lead to a very productive direction.”

Paul Barra is based in

Reidville, South Carolina.