Science Versus Politics

Scientists Fear Lawmakers May Inhibit Stem Cell Research  

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Science Feature -- April 2005

By  Ken Ortolon
Senior Editor

Perhaps fueled by the deaths of former president Ronald Reagan and actor Christopher Reeve, Americans increasingly support research using human embryonic stem cells, a new poll shows. But that does not mean the people who control the money are listening. Researchers say there is little likelihood the federal government will loosen President George W. Bush's restrictions on the research, and they fear two bills in the Texas Legislature could ban embryonic stem cell research altogether.

Those bills could drive top researchers out of the state, delay potential health benefits, and even harm the state's economy, scientists believe.

"The restrictions by the government are damaging and are going to hurt this country long term," said Ferid Murad, MD, PhD, a Nobel Prize laureate and stem cell researcher at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. "And it's apparent other countries are getting ahead of us and they're going to get further ahead of us." 

Gaining Steam

A survey released in February by the Results for America project of the Civil Society Institute (CSI) found that 63 percent of Americans support embryonic stem cell research. That was up from 60 percent in 2004 and 48 percent in 2001.

"These findings clearly show stem cell research is not an issue that is going to go away," said CSI President Pam Solo. CSI, based in Massachusetts, says it is a nonpartisan organization whose mission is to be a catalyst for change by creating problem-solving interactions among people and among communities, government, and business.

While public support is growing, embryonic research remains controversial, especially in the political arena. Legislation has been introduced in Congress to expand the number of stem cell lines eligible for federally funded research. The measure garnered 156 original cosponsors, but political observers say its chances of passage are slim.

Meanwhile, Texas lawmakers are interested in the stem cell debate. More than 60 Democratic and Republican legislators hosted a forum on stem cell research in January. The forum explored the current science on stem cells, looked at the economic consequences of participating or not participating in research, and dealt with the ethical and moral issues.

"I think the major impact of it was educational," said Kenneth I. Shine, MD, executive vice chancellor for health affairs of the UT System, who moderated the scientific discussion. "We got good feedback from not only some members of the legislature who were present but also their staff, who indicated they found it useful in understanding the issues. That was principally what we were trying to accomplish."

Although legislators are interested in stem cell research, said Corpus Christi geneticist Raymond C. Lewandowski Jr., MD, "there's no unanimity as far as support or opinions against stem cell research." Dr. Lewandowski, a member of the Texas Medical Association Council on Scientific Affairs, participated in the forum. 

Clamping Down

Since that forum, two bills have been filed that could have significant impact on the ability of Texas researchers to use human embryos. House Bill 864 by Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford) prohibits human cloning. It also bans research on a human embryo or fetus created by cloning.

Senate Bill 128 by Sen. Eliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso) also prohibits human cloning and limits the number of days a person may maintain an unfertilized blastocyst to no more than 14. However, it does not prohibit scientific research, including nuclear transplantation, to develop regenerative or reparative medical therapies or treatments.

It is unclear what impact the bills might have on stem cell research, and both were being reviewed by the TMA Council on Scientific Affairs and TMA staff at press time.

Dr. Shine says Texas research programs use embryonic stem cells derived from the lines approved by President Bush. "Stopping research on those and other types of stem cells would have three major consequences," he said.

"First, it would encourage faculty members who want to be leaders in science to move out of Texas. We've already seen the impact of monies promised in California on the willingness of people around the country to relocate." California voters recently approved an initiative providing $3 billion in state funding to support stem cell research there.

"Secondly, it would clearly inhibit new knowledge that could be developed in terms of how and in what way one used those kinds of stem cells," Dr. Shine continued. "And, thirdly, it would deprive the state of the potential health benefits and economic benefits of devising ways to produce organs."

Dr. Murad, chair of the Department of Integrative Biology and Pharmacology and director of the Institute of Molecular Medicine at UT-Houston, is working with embryonic stem cells to determine what regulates their growth and differentiation into other types of cells. He says lawmakers should expand the number of embryonic stem cell lines available for research rather than enact further restrictions. New lines are critical to allow American scientists to apply what they learn because most of the existing lines are contaminated with mouse antigens and proteins, he says.

"You can't introduce foreign proteins into humans," he said. "They'll be like antigens; the patients will form antibodies and reject the cells."

Dr. Lewandowski agrees. "The viability of the existing cell lines is in question because of the way they were brought forward. They are unsuitable for any type of human trials, so the only way federally funded trials can go forward is if there is a release to develop new cell lines."

Dr. Murad is not optimistic that Congress will expand available cell lines, and he is concerned about the Texas legislation.

"If they want us to slow down the introduction of novel therapies for our society and if they want other countries to get well ahead of us so they own the technology -- and if they own the technology, you can be sure that we're going to pay a premium to have it some day -- then so be it," he said. "But I think it's very shortsighted."

Ken Ortolon can be reached by telephone at (800) 880-1300, ext. 1392, or (512) 370-1392; by fax at (512) 370-1629; or by email at  Ken Ortolon.

 

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