NEITHER advocates nor opponents of medical research using human embryonic stem cells were cheering after President Bush announced his decision to allow limited federal support for such research. The president's announcement was carefully crafted in moral and scientific terms, but the political implications were just as ponderous.
Stem-cell research may
need more support in future
The issue: President Bush says he will
allow federal funding for limited medical
research into stem cells from human embryos.
The president's policy will clearly not end debate on this sensitive and controversial issue. As circumstances change, the question will most likely be reopened. For that reason, the work of a panel named by the president and headed by Dr. Leon Richard Kass, a medical doctor and noted bioethicist at the University of Chicago, to monitor developments will be especially critical.
In ethical terms, Bush drew the line between colonies of stem cells that already exist, having been developed from discarded embryos created at fertilization clinics, and those that may be similarly discarded in the future. Saying "the life and death decision has already been made" for the former, Bush gave credence to the belief that embryos at such a microscopic stage outside a woman's womb constitute life. The distinction made by Bush is unsettling to some religions and trivial to proponents of expanded research.
Scientists question whether enough colonies, or lines, of embryonic stem cells exist to support research in treating many diseases. "We are very concerned whether this is sufficient to do the work that needs to be done," said Peter Van Etten, president of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. "The limitations that he has put may limit our ability to do the work. We just need to wait and see."
Medical researchers question Bush's statement that more than 60 stem cell lines exist worldwide. A National Institutes of Health report in June estimated the number of such colonies at 30. Other reports have indicated the existence of only 10, some of which are largely useless and others may not be made available by some countries.
The need for more stem cell lines could expand with future success of experiments. For example, researchers still must learn how to enable embryonic stem cells to become self-sustaining colonies of specialized cells, such as pancreas, nerve and heart cells, that can be transplanted into people. They need to learn how to prevent a patient's immune system from rejecting them and to prevent them from growing indefinitely, becoming tumors.
Scientists are optimistic that these hurdles can be overcome. If that happens, the research could result in effective treatment diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, heart ailments, multiple sclerosis, bone ailments, burns, spinal cord injuries or cancer in which cells and tissue have been lost to radiation and chemotherapy. If research fails to achieve those goals, the need for lines of stem cells obviously will fade.
Congress is likely to review the president's decision. Although Bush's message was portrayed as a compromise -- pros and cons were explained in a style suited for a classroom lecture combining biology and philosophy -- a call for further compromise may arise in the not too distant future.
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