South Florida doctors look to speed up stem cell research

Published: March 10, 2009  |  Source: miamiherald.com
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As President Barack Obama eased restrictions on embryonic stem cell research Monday, South Florida scientists said they will pursue the controversial research in their labs as they look for cures.

For more than a decade, Dr. Dalton Dietrich has worked in a lab at the University of Miami Medical School, trying to unlock the secrets of spinal-cord injury and paralysis.

He got a new tool Monday when President Barack Obama lifted a ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Dietrich and other South Florida medical researchers hailed Obama’s decision, saying it will speed their efforts to heal the human heart, help spinal cord injury patients and, someday, cure diabetes.

”I woke up this morning very excited,” said Dietrich, scientific director of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. “This will open whole new areas of human biology.”

The praise wasn’t universal, as opponents of embryonic stem cell research likened it to abortion.

”There are many human beings who consider an embryo a human being,” said the Rev. Alfred Cioffi, a biology professor at St. Thomas University, a Miami Gardens college operated by the Archdiocese of Miami.

Obama lifted the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, imposed in 2001 by President George W. Bush. Bush did allow funding to continue for a few lines of embryonic stem cells that already had been created, but scientists said those lines were contaminated and could not be used in human trials.

Monday morning, as Obama signed an executive order lifting the ban, researchers gathered for a news conference at the University of Miami Leonard Miller School of Medicine, where most South Florida stem cell research is done.

Dr. Pascal Goldschmidt, dean of the UM School of Medicine, said the new policy could mean huge medical advances.

”Humans are genetically programmed to live to be about 100; the reason we don’t is that organs get damaged by various factors like diabetes, cancer and so on,” he said. “Now we won’t be limited in our ability to deal with it.”

Use of new embryonic stem cells at UM might start in about six months. Doctors stressed that the cells will come from fertility clinics that use the number they need to achieve pregnancy for a patient, then often discard the rest. The cells will not come from embryos created specifically for research, said Dr. Joshua Hare, director of UM’s Stem Cell Institute.

WORK ON TEETH

At Nova Southeastern University in Davie, dental researcher Peter Murry is using adult stem cells to try to replace the pulp removed from teeth during root canals. He praised Obama’s ruling but said embryonic stem cells are impractical in his small study.

”Embryonic cells are not easy to get,” he said.

At Scripps Research Institute in Palm Beach County, no embryonic stem cell research is going on at present. But Scripps president Richard Lerner said, “our scientists are free to go where their science takes them, within the law.”

In Miami Beach, Sabrina Cohen, who has used a wheelchair since suffering a severe spinal cord injury in a car accident, sat anxiously by her TV and radio Monday listening for the president’s announcement.

”I’ve been sitting in this wheelchair for 16 years. One day, I may be able to get up and walk again,” said Cohen, 31, who in 2006 founded the Sabrina Cohen Foundation for Stem Cell Research. “That is the kind of breakthrough what we are fighting for.”

But Tewannah Aman, executive director of Fort Lauderdale-based Broward County Right to Life, said using embryos in research is wrong, no matter the goal.

”I’ve been a diabetic for 20 years. To think I would destroy a human life for my own gain — I don’t believe that’s right,” Aman said. “Life begins at conception. Even in these early stages, the embryo shouldn’t be destroyed.”

The UM doctors stressed that all work with embryonic cells will be closely monitored by a UM medical ethics committee. But they said decisions will be made based on science, not religion.

”You can have your belief based on religion, but you can’t impose it on others,” said Dr. Raul de Velasco, UM’s director of clinical ethics.

Obama’s decision could reopen the debate on state funding of embryonic stem cell research.

House Democratic Leader Franklin Sands, of Weston, said despite the rough budget year, he would like to see the state give stem cell research money to scientific institutes like Torrey Pines, Scripps and the Max Planck Society. Sands, a longtime supporter of stem cell research, said the state funds could help attract additional private investments for embryonic stem cell research.

”Ideally, what I would like to see is some state funding to come down that could act as seed money,” Sands said.

`IN A CRUNCH’

Gov. Charlie Crist said Monday he supported potentially lifesaving research like stem cell studies, but this may not be a good time.

”We’re in a crunch as it is right now,” he said.

Rep. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican and House deputy majority leader, sponsored the adult-only stem cell funding bill in 2007. Flores said Monday that she opposed using state money for embryonic stem cell research.

”I don’t think it’s necessary or good for someone to create life in order to destroy life,” Flores said. “And when we have finite resources and tax dollars, whether it be at the federal or the state level, we should put our focus on adult stem cell research that can yield immediate results.”

Miami Herald staff writer Breanne Gilpatrick contributed to this report.

BY FRED TASKER AND JAWEED KALEEM