State of the Stem Cells: Bush’s Vow

WASHINGTON — The push to create tiny cloned humans to use for experiments is under way in laboratories around the country. So are less-heralded attempts to merge animal embryos with human stem cells.

But President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address offered encouragement to those hoping to impose a federal ban, regulate the experimentation and stop the cloning tidal wave.

Bush vowed in his Feb. 2 address to work with Congress to ensure that “human embryos are not created for experimentation or grown for body parts, and that human life is never bought and sold as a commodity.”

“I think he was pretty clear — he is committed to the dignity of human life and not exploiting one person at the expense of another,” said Jennifer Lahl, national director of the Center for Bioethics and Culture in Tiburon, Calif., a leading opponent of human cloning.

A senior White House official said Bush will “lay out the details of a broader bioethics agenda in the near future.” That agenda will move beyond the current restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research implemented in 2001 and the proposed ban on all cloning in the United States, the official said in a briefing.

“The president’s concern is that we have biotech labs with private funds that are working night and day to create human embryos they can grow and kill,” Douglas Johnson, National Right to Life Committee legislative director, said.

California cloning advocates, who spent $35 million to win voter approval of a $3 billion stem-cell research institute in November, pledged this month to raise $1 million to fight a federal cloning ban. California Research and Cures Coalition mastermind Robert Klein said a ban would “directly threaten” the state initiative, the Associated Press reported.

“We’re not trying to make body parts or new people. We are trying to carry out experiments that will move us in the direction of new fundamental understanding and affect the health of people,” Keith Yamamoto, executive vice dean of the University of California at San Francisco School of Medicine, said.

The university is closely associated with the newly created California Institute of Regenerative Medicine and also conducts embryonic stem-cell research.

State after state is considering legislation or passing legislation that would fund embryonic stem-cell research and human cloning for experimentation, lured by the promise of biotech money and the hope of miracle cures — even though it kills a human being who is already a boy or girl in the first eight weeks of life — and no cure has yet been traced to the research.

At the same time, scientists are experimenting with merging human stem cells with embryonic animals, creating so-called chimeras. There is no national law regulating either human-animal experimentation or cloning.

Supporters of embryonic stem-cell research are gearing up to fight restrictions.

Cloning Ban

Scientists hope they can create new organs and cures for diseases such as Parkinson’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, by building from the early 100-150 cells that compose a week-old embryo. They hope clones will avoid the rejection problems of embryos formed during in-vitro fertilization attempts, but so far they have also run into rejection problems there, too.

In February 2004, South Korean scientists reported growing the first human embryo clone, destroying it after seven or eight days. Dolly the sheep was the first animal cloned, in Scotland in 1996.

National Right to Life’s Johnson predicts the president wants to regulate “rogue scientists,” including those who have created chimeras, named for the mythological monster that had a lion’s head, goat’s body and serpent’s tail.

There exist in Nevada sheep whose livers and hearts are largely human. In Minnesota, the Mayo Clinic created pigs with human blood in their veins. Stanford University is attempting to create mice with human brains, National Geographic News reported.

“The president’s remarks and his actions in focusing on this brave new world is very important. It’s very helpful,” Johnson said.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a national cloning ban by a vote of 241-155 in February 2003, but it stalled in the Senate. Since last fall’s elections, Republicans hold a 55-45 majority in the Senate. However, several Republicans, including Orrin Hatch of Utah and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, support therapeutic cloning. Both reproductive and therapeutic cloning use the same process; only the purpose differs.

A Wilson Research Strategies poll conducted in August found 69% of Americans oppose all human cloning. The poll, conducted for National Right to Life, interviewed 1,000 adults and had a 3.1% margin of error.

Massachusetts Gov. W. Mitt Romney, a Republican, weighed in on the issue Feb. 10, sending a letter to the state Legislature stating his opposition to legislation that would allow human cloning and stating he could only support embryonic stem-cell research using in-vitro fertilization embryos that would already be discarded. Romney, whose wife has multiple sclerosis, has voiced support for stem-cell research in the past.

“My wife has MS, and we would love for there to be a cure for her disease and for the diseases of others,” he told the New York Times. “But there is an ethical boundary that should not be crossed.”

Valerie Schmalz writes

from San Francisco.

Embryonic Stem-Cell’s First Cure?

MADISON, Wis. — Pro-life advocates often point out that, in spite of all the hype and the cries for funding, embryonic stem-cell research has not yielded one cure. At the same time, ethically acceptable adult stem cells are now used successfully in almost 100 therapies.

News out of the University of Wisconsin might pose a significant challenge to the adult stem-cell hegemony.

Wisconsin researchers reported the breakthrough of developing spinal motor neurons using embryonic stem cells. The work was published in the journal Nature Biotechnology on Jan. 30. The achievement is a small step forward for basic science, scientists agree.

Still, no one will be standing up and walking anytime soon.

The ethical stumbling block of killing tiny humans for their spare parts remains, as do persistent medical obstacles of malignant tumors and organ rejection that have plagued embryonic stem-cell efforts.

“It shows these cells can be directed to be this specific type of neural cell,” said University of Wisconsin at Madison spokesman Terry Devitt. Spinal motor neurons are critical nervous-system pathways that relay messages from the brain to the rest of the body.

“The results they report are not as tantalizing as the news reports would suggest,” said Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. “Issues of immune rejection and tumor formation still loom large for embryonic stem cells.”

The Wisconsin feat is a first and was accomplished by coaxing the original stem cells with a chemical cocktail using exquisite timing in a process of trial and error over the course of two years, scientists said. The resulting nerve cells were part of a larger group of cells in a petri dish, so they were not a “pure population,” which would be needed to proceed with any experimentation, scientists said.

Embryonic stem cells differentiate after the first few days of life, eventually creating about 220 different types of cells. So far, no method has been discovered to harness this potential outside of the living embryo. The developing cells tend to form random and often fatal tumors elsewhere in the body, and the body also rejects the cells as foreign matter.

“The tumor issue — that’s a potential safety issue absolutely,” Devitt said. “It would be unethical to attempt to use them in humans. There is a lot of basic science that needs to be done before they can be safely moved to the clinic.”

The research was also funded by the National Institutes of Health under federal funding guidelines laid out by President Bush in 2001, which restricted federal funding to about 60 existing embryonic stem-cell lines derived from killed embryos created via in-vitro fertilization. The first lines were developed at the University of Wisconsin in 1998.

—Valerie Schmalz

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy