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White House: Ethical stem cell alternatives should be focus

WASHINGTON (BP)–On the eve of a debate on embryonic stem cell research in Congress, the White House released a 64-page report Jan. 10 arguing that human embryos are worthy of protection and that recent scientific developments using alternative forms of stem cells will make stem cell research with embryos unnecessary.

“In sum, it increasingly appears that the qualities researchers value in embryonic cells may also exist in other stem cells that are easier to procure, more stable to grow, safer to use in therapies, and free of the ethical violations of embryo destruction,” the report, written by the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, states. “There is a gathering consensus among experts, thanks to technical advances, that today’s heated controversies over research that harms embryos could fade in the future.”

The House of Representatives is scheduled to debate and possibly vote Jan. 11 on a bill that would permit federal funding of stem cell research that requires the destruction of human embryos, thus overturning President Bush’s 2001 policy. He vetoed a similar bill last year. Bush’s 2001 policy permits federal funding for research on embryonic stem cell lines that were already in place at the time of the announcement, although it prohibits federal funding that requires the future destruction of embryos. The policy allowed private funding of research to continue — something the White House report pointed out.

“Contrary to common misperceptions, there is no presidential ban on human embryonic stem cell research,” the report says. “No federal mandates constrain private or state-government funding of any element of this science.”

Stem cells are the body’s master cells and, many scientists believe, are the gateway to curing many ailments, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. They are found in embryos and in various parts of the body. The White House report — titled “Advancing Stem Cell Science Without Destroying Human Life” — argues that there are at least three current or potential sources for stem cells that avoid most or all ethical dilemmas:

— Adult-cell reprogramming, in which adult stem cells are “reprogrammed” into acting like embryonic stem cells. Recent work, the White House report says, “suggests that it may be possible to use chemical and genetic factors to reprogram an adult cell to function like an embryonic stem cell.” (Adult stem cells are non-embryonic stem cells found throughout the body. They pose no ethical dilemma.) The White House cites studies by Japanese and Harvard researchers.

— Stem cells from amniotic fluid, an approach recently discovered by researchers at Wake Forest University and Children’s Hospital in Boston. “[Researchers] believe that these amniotic stem cells may be fully as flexible as embryonic stem cells, while having additional medical advantages: they are easier to grow than human embryonic stem cells, and they do not form tumors (a problem that has plagued embryonic stem cell use),” the report states.

— Adult stem cells. “[T]here are currently 1,229 publicly available clinical trials related to adult stem cells, including 614 that are currently recruiting patients,” the report states, noting that “there are no known publicly available clinical trials related to human embryonic stem cells.”

The White House report acknowledges that adult stem cells “may be more limited” in their use and may not be able to grow into all the different types of the body’s tissue, as embryonic stem cells theoretically can. But the report says adult stem cells thus far have been invaluable.

“Over the last couple of years, clinical trials using adult stem cells have produced encouraging improvements in patients suffering a range of diseases and disorders, including leukemia, lymphoma, diabetes, advanced kidney cancer, and several inherited blood disorders,” the report states.

The debate over embryonic stem cell research, the White House report says, focuses on one central question: Is an embryo a human life?

“Embryos are humans in their earliest developmental stage,” the report says. “We do not have to think that human embryos are exactly the same in all ways as older humans to believe that they are entitled to respect and protection. Each of us originated as a single-celled embryo, and from that moment have developed along a continuous biological trajectory throughout our existence. To speak of ‘an embryo’ is to designate a human being at a particular stage.

“Our nation was founded on the principle that all of us are created equal, and endowed with a right to exist that is shared fully by all humans. There is no such thing as an excess life. And the fact that a human lacks some particular capacity, or even is going to die, does not justify experimenting on that individual, or exploiting him or her as a natural resource. That has long been the standard in medical ethics….”

The “era of biotechnology,” the report says, has a “golden promise” for potential cures.

“But we must pursue its great hope in ways consistent with our principles,” the report says. “That will sometimes require saying no. To find the right paths for medical research, we must be willing to reject paths that are morally wrong.”

The aforementioned “groundbreaking” alternatives to embryonic stem cell research, the report argues, have taken place under Bush’s “insistence on advancing stem cell research within clear ethical guidelines.”

“Scientists have shown they have the ingenuity and skill to pursue the potential benefits of embryonic stem cell research without endangering nascent human life in the process,” the report says. “In supporting these alternative approaches while maintaining longstanding bioethical guardrails which protect life and dignity, federal science-research funding can stay true to the ideals of a humane society.”

The report also encourages embryo adoption — which “shows that frozen embryos do not have to be destroyed” — and criticizes human therapeutic cloning, which some scientists support as a means of harvesting more stem cells.

“Intentionally creating human life to destroy it for laboratory research is itself a violation of an important moral principle,” the report says. “Moreover, the development of the cloning techniques involved will inevitably hasten the day when some practitioner oblivious to public recoil will arrange for embryos to be implanted, and cloned humans to be born.”

The entire report is available online at www.whitehouse.gov/stemcell.

    About the Author

  • Michael Foust