The President’s Council on Bioethics has released a report that describes potential ways around the objections that have been raised against embryonic stem cell research. Because obtaining stem cells requires the destruction of a human embryo, many researchers find performing research with these cells ethically unacceptable.

Stem cells are unspecialized cells that can renew themselves for long periods through cell division. In addition, under the right conditions, they can develop, or “differentiate” to become cells with more specialized functions. Embryonic stem cells are “pluripotent,” or capable of differentiating. Under the right conditions, human embryonic stem cells will proliferate indefinitely without specializing or differentiating into specific cell types.

Earlier, President Bush limited the use of federal funds for stem cell research by Executive Order, as of Aug. 9, 2001, which put a restraint on U.S. labs so that they can receive federal funding to study only the 22 embryonic stem cell lines available and approved by the National Institutes of Health. Although millions of stem cells can come from each line, they will only contain the genetic diversity of a few individuals. [However, see CNN’s recent article on why the ban may be reversed.]

Now, the President’s Council report looks at four potential methods of deriving cells that would have all the therapeutic potential of embryonic stem cells, without the ethical objections. The methods include deriving stem cells from embryos that have stopped growing and are essentially dead, or finding ways to trick adult cells into behaving like embryonic cells. While none of these approaches is certain to work, the report encourages more scientific research on these alternatives.

Read the Report President’s Council on Bioethics: ‘Alternative Sources of Pluripotent Stem Cells’

You can also hear discussion about the report on NPR’s All Things Considered, May 15, 2005. The NPR Audio link can be found here.

According to the New York Times, two of the three research scientists on the council have “vigorously rejected” the report’s recommendations. Michael Gazzaniga, a professor of neurology at Dartmouth College, said the proposed alternatives are “high-risk gambles” and evade the question as to whether the United States should endorse embryonic stem cell research as it currently is done or whether the country will “remain hostage to the arbitrary views of those with certain beliefs about the nature of life and its origins”.

Janet Rowley, a cell biologist at the University of Chicago, said it is “totally baffling” to let healthy embryos die instead of using them to help other patients. The “sharp division” between scientists and bioethicists on the council is “unusual,” the Times reports. Council Chair Leon Kass said the council has a more balanced perspective, with more members who are “pro-life” than past councils, and that it is “more representative of the nation as whole.”

The dead-embryo idea draws on the fact that in fertility treatments, when many embryos are made in a test tube by mixing eggs and sperm, typically several embryos cease to undergo further cell division and can be regarded as dead. The council considers it possible that other cells might still be viable and could be salvaged for use as stem cells. Since use of tissues from cadavers is ethically acceptable, by analogy the use of viable cells from embryos regarded as dead should also pose no problem, it believes.

The second method deemed acceptable depends on the fact, basic to the technique for cloning animals, that when the nucleus of an adult cell is inserted into an unfertilized egg, the egg somehow makes the nucleus revert to an embryonic state. Presumably, there are chemical signals in the egg that enter the nucleus and reprogram its DNA. The council recommends finding these factors and using them to convert adult cells into stem cells.

On a related matter, the ban on federal funding for research has set off the Great Stem Cell Gold Rush, as states via for developing funding at the state level to concentrate the research in their own states. States all believe that they can bring lucrative companies and jobs to their state even though, despite all the excitement, no human therapies from embryonic stem cells have yet to be developed or tested.

California has passed Proposition 71, which provides $3 billion for stem cell research throughout the state over the next ten years ($350 million a year) and creates the The California Research & Cures Coalition, which has changed its name to The Foundation for Stem Cell Research, to administer funding. New Jersey established the New Jersey Stem Cell Institute, the first state-funded human embryonic stem cell research center and plans to introduce a $500 million bond proposal to continue to fund human embryonic stem cell research over the next 10 years. Similar activities are being proposed in Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Texas, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.

It will be quite interesting to see how all these tax dollars sloshing around changes the landscape of research, perhaps further concentrating the research and related commercialization to just a few epicenters across the country.

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