A Senate hearing on stem cells generated heated discussions Wednesday despite the best efforts of the senator in charge.
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) opened the meeting saying, “Today’s hearing is about miracles,” referring to adult stem-cell therapies. Several witnesses came forth who had been treated successfully for spinal cord injury and Parkinson’s disease using adult stem cells.
But Brownback should have known that no conversation on this subject can exist without a dissection of President Bush’s controversial policy regarding embryonic stem cells. No sooner did Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) get the floor than he ignored Brownback’s plea to discuss only adult stem cells.
“While the research shows that using adult stem cells can help some people,” Wyden said, “there are millions of Americans who suffer from a host of devastating diseases (along with) their valiantly supportive families who I believe deserve more.”
Embryonic stem cells are controversial because they are taken from an early human embryo. Many researchers argue it should be OK to use the cells because the embryos are usually left over from in vitro fertilization clinics and would have been discarded anyway.
Bush declared on August 9, 2001, that no more stem-cell lines than already existed could be developed using federal funds. He said at the time that 64 stem-cell lines were available, but in reality that number turned out to be 19.
Nancy Reagan and other concerned celebrities have urged Bush to change his policy. On Wednesday, the government announced it would open a “national bank” to accelerate research on the approved cells, but scientists around the country quickly dubbed the plan window dressing.
“The current policy is based on an arbitrary factor — a specific cutoff date unrelated to science — that negates important technical progress that has been made in the field outside of federally funded research,” said Peter Van Etten, president and CEO of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. “The truth of the matter is that we need more stem-cell lines in order to provide better models for studying and curing a wider range of human diseases.”
Success with adult stem cells has been used in the past as evidence that embryonic stem cell research may not be necessary.
Irving Weissman, an adult-stem-cell researcher, outlined some successes he’s had with the cells. But he went on to urge for a change in Bush’s policy. He also had harsh words for a bill sponsored by Brownback that would outlaw therapeutic cloning, also called somatic cell nuclear transfer, which involves extracting stem cells from the embryonic clone of a patient. Researchers believe it could eliminate potential immune rejection because a clone would be a patient’s exact genetic match.
“I urge you to think hard whether you wish to overrule good science and medicine and ban some kinds of biomedical research and therapies for the first time in American history,” Weissman said. “In my own personal moral view, those in a position of advice or authority who participate in the banning or enforced delays of biomedical research that could lead to the saving of lives and the amelioration of suffering are directly and morally responsible for the lives made worse or lost due the ban.”
Another witness, Jean D. Peduzzi-Nelson, touted adult stem cells as a better choice than embryonic stem cells because they are more controllable and less likely to form tumors. (Weissman pointed out that once the stem cells are coaxed to become a particular type of cell, they no longer form tumors.)
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey) reminded Peduzzi-Nelson that she was under oath, then asked if she belonged to any pro-life organizations. Brownback questioned the relevance of the question, but Lautenberg persisted. Peduzzi-Nelson replied that she did not recall joining any such groups, but later said she does believe that embryonic stem-cell research is the needless destruction of human life.
Two women with catastrophic spinal cord injuries who were told they would never move again from the chest down testified at the hearing. A Portuguese physician, Carlos Lima, took cells called olfactory mucosa from inside the patients’ noses and injected the cells into their damaged spinal cords.
While both women still need braces and assistance to walk, they have regained substantial movement and feeling in their arms and legs, and have regained some bladder control. A dramatic video showed one of the patients, Laura Dominguez, swimming without assistance.
Another patient, Dennis Turner, testified about his adult stem-cell treatment for Parkinson’s disease, which he received four years ago. His shaking and other symptoms were so improved that he was able to return to his hobby: big game photography. He was able to not only take photographs but also to escape from a charging rhinoceros.
Dr. Michel Levesque, who treated Turner, was also on hand to testify. He was clearly reluctant to get into a political discussion, but after being pressed by Wyden, he admitted he believes the Bush policy should change.