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Pro-life ethicists cautious about new stem cell proposals

WASHINGTON (BP)–Two new proposals designed to produce stem cells without destroying embryos have been greeted with caution by pro-life bioethicists.

The ideas were presented to the President’s Council on Bioethics Dec. 3 and received positive reactions from several panel members. Chairman Leon Kass and others expressed hope the proposals may provide a solution to the controversy over stem cells.

The ethical and political disagreement stems from the destruction that results of embryos from which such cells are extracted. The procurement of stem cells from non-embryonic sources -– such as bone marrow, umbilical cord blood and fat — does not harm the donor.

Stem cells are the body’s master cells that can develop into other cells and tissues, providing hope that numerous afflictions can be treated. Many scientists continue to promote destructive embryonic stem cell research, contending it has more potential for producing therapies. Only treatments using stem cells from non-embryonic sources have been successful in human beings so far, however.

A member of the President’s Council on Bioethics outlined one of the proposals for his colleagues. William Hurlbut, an opponent of both embryonic stem cell research and research cloning, described a method known as “altered nuclear transfer,” which could result in the production of stem cells without creating an embryo.

The other idea, presented by Columbia University medical professors Donald Landry and Howard Zucker, would involve the extraction of stem cells from embryos produced in infertility treatments. These embryos would have stopped their development and, in essence, would be defined as dead.

A Southern Baptist bioethicist commended the men for “thinking creatively about ways to advance the science without sacrificing human embryos” but said the jury is still out ethically.

“Everyone involved is anxious for ethical ways to move stem cell research toward therapies,” said C. Ben Mitchell, a consultant for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “[These] proposals might be two ways to move forward, but no one knows at this point. And no one can know without learning more about the science of embryogenesis and about the nuances of their proposals.

“Since I favor ethically responsible science and since I think vivisection of human embryos is morally unacceptable, then I would favor research using animal models to see if it is possible to generate non-embryos from which stem cells might be derived,” said Mitchell, an associate professor of bioethics at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in suburban Chicago. “More research using animal models is necessary and consistent with the canons of good science.”

A bioethics analyst with Focus on the Family agreed more information is needed.

“Would [Hurlbut’s] technique prevent the creation of a human embryo or would it create a genetically defective human embryo?” Earll told Family News in Focus. “And until we can answer that question, it falls into the gray zone.”

In a public comment period after both presentations to the council, Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said of Hurlbut’s proposal he saw “no moral reason at this time to oppose the further exploration of this theory in an animal model so its feasibility can better be assessed. This would give scientists an opportunity to show their real commitment is to scientific progress, not to the exploitation of embryos, and gives organizations like mine an opportunity to show that our concern is respect for life, not a fear of scientific research or scientific progress.”

In his presentation to the bioethics council, Hurlbut, a consulting professor in human biology at Stanford University, said “extensive studies with animal models must follow” if his “ideas are deemed feasible.”

“We do not propose any projects involving human cells until we can be certain that embryos are not created by these methods,” he said, according to a transcript of the meeting provided by the council.

Kass, the bioethics council’s chairman, called the ideas “extremely interesting, very creative proposals, absolutely worth not only our consideration but much more public consideration.”

So far in the contentious debate, most pro-life advocates have supported only research using stem cells from non-embryonic sources. Treatments using these cells have resulted in therapies for more than 40 ailments, including spinal cord injuries, lupus, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, Crohn’s disease and diabetes.

While supporters of destructive embryonic research claim this line of study has the most potential for producing cures, it is not evident in the priorities of the multi-billion-dollar biotechnology industry, which has invested many times more in adult stem cell research. Embryonic stem cell research has experienced multiple failures, including the worsening of Parkinson’s symptoms in one human test group and a tendency to produce tumors in laboratory animals.

Many researchers and disease treatment advocacy organizations have criticized President Bush’s policy, which bars federal funds for stem cell research that destroys embryos. The federal government provided more than $190 million in funding for non-embryonic stem cell research in 2003. Meanwhile, $24.8 million was set aside the same year for research on embryonic stem cell lines in existence before the president instituted the restriction in 2001. The federal government has not prohibited privately funded embryonic research.

Though the Bush administration blocks funds for research that destroys embryos, some states are in a race to underwrite the practice. California’s voters approved in November a proposition that legalizes and funds embryonic stem cell research, as well as therapeutic cloning, with up to $3 billion in state bonds over 10 years. Advocates for embryo-destructive research in Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Illinois are promoting funding plans to keep their states from falling too far behind California.

A transcript of the session in which the President’s Council discussed the new proposals is available online at http://www.bioethics.gov/transcripts/dec04/session6.html.