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Stem Cell Legislation Could Alter Science Forever

Experts say if a federal-funding bill is ever passed, direction of research would change

THURSDAY, June 20, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- If the embryonic stem cell research bill vetoed by President Bush on Wednesday ever becomes law, experts agreed it would alter this emerging field of science forever.

Although the House failed to override the first veto of the Bush presidency -- falling 51 votes short of the required two-thirds majority -- several legislators vowed Wednesday night to continue their fight to restore federal funding for the research.

"Mr. President, we will not give up," Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass) told the Associated Press. "We will continue this battle."

If proponents of embryonic stem cell research do win the moral and political war in the coming years, the victory would be scientifically significant, experts stressed.

"It would be more than symbolic. It would have a huge impact, and in ways people hadn't really thought of," said David Magnus, director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics.

But it wouldn't go all the way, others cautioned.

"It would be a boost, but it's certainly not how we would like to see the science move forward," said Harvey Lodish, a member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and a professor of biology and bioengineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, both in Cambridge.

Embryonic stem cell research in the United States has been severely restricted since Aug. 9, 2001, when Bush placed limits on federal funding of the field. As of that date, federal funds could only be used to study stem cell lines derived from embryos that had been destroyed before the limit was set.

This has turned out to be fewer lines than originally thought, and even fewer high-quality lines.

"Fewer than 20 lines of what was thought to be 60 are actually usable in research, and there have been issues with some of those lines," said Dr. Susan Okie, a contributing editor to the New England Journal of Medicine. "They accumulate mutations as they get older."

And while some state and private money has emerged to fill the gap, it's just not enough on its own.

"We need the NIH [National Institutes of Health]," Lodish said. "It's the only place short of Bill Gates that has the resources to fund this stuff at the appropriate level. Very little is going to get done without federal funding."

Embryonic stem cells are derived from early embryos before they implant in the uterus and have the potential to develop into any type of cell in the body. The hope is that these cells may one day provide treatments or cures for diseases such as diabetes, liver failure, spinal injury, stroke, Alzheimer's disease and heart disease.

However, because the embryo is destroyed in the process of acquiring the stem cells, there has been great ethical opposition to the research.

The most concrete effect of the stem cell bill would have been to allow the creation of newer stem cell lines with federal dollars.

"The lines themselves are the major tools the researchers have in doing this work," Okie said. "They'll just have a greater variety of fresher lines to work with."

How much more federal money would have gone toward stem cell research is still unclear.

"It's hard to anticipate in advance where that would lead and how much money would be involved but, in the early days, it would probably be modest amounts and amounts from states would probably be greater," Magnus said.

More immediately, the legislation would have lifted some of the red tape researchers now have to contend with.

"Right now, the prohibitions mean we have to draw a line between mingling of funds, equipment, time and personnel between research. It's a logistical nightmare," Magnus said. "We have to literally have labels on all scientific equipment. It is a huge obstacle to stem cell research that currently exists that would be eliminated if this bill passed."

The ligislation would also allow government agencies to be more flexible in responding to real-time advances in science.

"One of the hard parts of regulating science is that the situation changes all the time," Magnus said. "This would allow researchers to be more responsive to developments."

The bill would not, however, allow the creation of stem cell lines using nuclear transfer. So far, no one has been able to do this in humans, although South Koreans claimed they had succeeded last year. They were later found to have fabricated most of their claims.

"It would be more of a breakthrough if we could make disease-specific lines in humans," Okie said. Such lines would enable research into specific diseases in specific people.

But even with a boost from federal legislation, the promise of stem cell research is unlikely to translate into concrete gains any time soon.

"The results will be a long time coming. It will be years," Magnus said.

And, ultimately, clinical trials in humans would probably be funded by pharmaceutical companies. Despite the current furor, those companies do not seem shy to jump into the arena.

Geron Corp. has already announced the first clinical trial of stem cells, this one for acute spinal cord injury. That trial should take place within the next two years.

More information

To learn more about stem cells and stem cell research, head to the International Society for Stem Cell Research.

SOURCES: David Magnus, Ph.D., director, Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, and associate professor, pediatrics, Stanford University; Susan Okie, M.D., contributing editor, New England Journal of Medicine, Washington, D.C.; Harvey Lodish, Ph.D., D.Sc., member, Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, and professor, biology and bioengineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge; Associated Press
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