Stem-cell studies divide America

Is Sen. John Kerry “a cannibal in a suit?” Or does the Democratic presidential nominee’s platform on embryonic stem-cell research offer the best-known hope to millions of Americans who suffer from debilitating diseases and conditions?

Politics colors the debate as Kerry and President George W. Bush head down the stretch in the Nov. 2 election race.

A local doctor and some ethicists interviewed this past week appear to side with Kerry in their wish to lift Bush-imposed federal-funding limits on the research. But anti-abortion activist Roger Stenson of North Hampton called the Massachusetts senator a “cannibal in a suit” for his platform and defended the president’s decision to not continue to use taxpayer funds “to kill human embryos.”

A deputy policy director for the national Bush-Cheney re-election campaign laid out the president’s position this past week.

“He does not believe taxpayer money should be used to destroy human life,” said Megan Hauck of Bush during a phone interview. “We do not destroy one human life at the expense of treating another.”

The Catholic Church is against embryonic stem-cell research based on the same argument, according to Michele Dillon, a University of New Hampshire associate professor of sociology.

If Bush were diagnosed with a disease such as Multiple Sclerosis tomorrow, he would not change his position on the stem-cell debate, Hauck said.

Stem cells taken from human embryos retain the ability to transform into any type of cell the body needs, according to the National Institutes of Health. That unique ability may help cure a host of diseases, including Parkinson’s, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s, and conditions such as spinal-cord injuries.

Scientists extract the stem cells from human embryos that remain frozen in in-vitro fertilization clinics, or would otherwise be discarded. The embryos used to cultivate stem cells are destroyed as a result of this process, giving rise to the ethical debate about whether scientists should perform this work at all.

Once stem cells are extracted from an embryo, they replicate and form what are known as stem-cel* lines.” On Aug. 9, 2001, Bush authorized federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, but limited that funding for use only on stem-cell lines that existed before that date. In fiscal year 2003, Bush earmarked $24.8 million for this work.

As of August 2001, 78 privately owned embryonic stem-cell lines were available for federal funding for research projects, according to Hauck.

“There are some – less than 10, I believe – that have been corrupted or not viable,” she said. Today, 22 lines are publicly available, according to Hauck.

While Bush has set limits on that work, he supports and funds other research being performed on adult stem cells. So-called “adult” stem cells exist in humans and help repair damaged cells. But unlike their embryonic counterparts, adult stem cells generally can only replicate into the type of cells that exist in their tissue of origin, according to the NIH.

But Bush also “has not stood in the way” of scientists working at private laboratories in the country who want to pursue embryonic stem-cell research, Hauck said.

But advocates of this fledgling research say the federal funding limit is forcing talented scientists to leave the country or else abandon this work. They say the number of embryonic stem-cell lines available for public study is simply not enough.

The research is “one of the greatest promises” to help cure Type I diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes, according to Dr. Daniel Crowe, medical director of the Diabetes Resource Center at Portsmouth Regional Hospital.

People diagnosed with Type I diabetes have lost the ability to manufacture insulin in their pancreases. Insulin is a needed agent in the body that helps glucose (sugar) absorb into cells in the bloodstream, he said.

People with Type I diabetes lack cells in their pancreases available to produce insulin. Researchers hope to make insulin-producing cells from stem cells.

Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness, kidney failure and amputations in patients, and diabetics are two to four times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease. About 1 million people in the country have Type I diabetes, Crowe said.

He noted a majority of cellular biologists agree an embryo “is not a human being.” Regardless of one’s beliefs, ideology should not stand in the way of science, according to the doctor.

“We have to respect all people’s beliefs and opinions. But scientific research that has so much promise to bring benefits to mankind cannot be subject to government interference,” Crowe said.

Marc Hiller, a UNH associate professor of health and management policy, believes there needs to be guidelines on embryonic stem-cell research, as does Kerry. People also need to weigh the benefits of the research against the pitfalls.

“One has to look at how many lives are being lost … because of our blocking (the research),” he said.

If the federal government severely limits funding for the work, Hiller wonders what claim the public would have on medical discoveries made in privately-run laboratories.

“There’s proprietary issues and there’s also the loss of the federal government imposing any federal-quality standards,” he said.

Hauck believes just as much if not more promise exists in adult stem-cell research. Those who side with Kerry on the issue of embryonic stem-cell policy unfairly extend the promise of a cure “just around the corner” when some cures could be “20 years down the road” for some patients who could be helped, she said.

Hiller doesn’t see it that way.

“Ten or 20 years is not a lifetime, particularly when many of the conditions that may be benefiting (from the research) are affecting younger people,” he said.

Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said the Bush administration is unfairly politicizing the debate.

Bush “thought he could gain some traction with his core supporters” and get “a victory in the perennial abortion wars,” Caplan said.

Instead, the president’s August 2001 policy decision backfired, especially when patient-advocacy groups – and actors Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s, and Christopher Reeve, a spinal-cord injury survivor – spoke out, according to Caplan.

He sees hypocrisy in Bush’s stem-cell policy when embryos inside in-vitro fertilization clinics are destroyed every day, yet Bush has not stepped in to stop that practice.

“The White House does nothing to intervene … it (would be) political suicide,” Caplan said.

He estimated such clinics across the country house some 400,000 frozen human embryos that have not been chosen for implantation in female patients’ wombs because the embryos have suspected defects or other irregularities.

Still, these embryos could be used for stem-cell research, he believes.

“An embryo frozen for five years that was put aside because it didn’t look right is never going to be given to anybody to make a baby,” he said. “If that’s their fate when someone’s in a wheelchair, I say let’s use them.”

By Nancy Cicco

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