Emily Singer

A View from Emily Singer

Unclear If New Stem Cells Eligible for Federal Funding

Only a new president can rescue the field from this funding mess.

  • January 14, 2008

It’s unclear if a new technique to generate embryonic stem cells without destroying the embryos from which they were derived will be eligible for federal funding, according to news reports last week. Some seem to think the new method satisifies restrictions that prohibit federal funding for research that harms embryos. Others disagree. This latest debate only serves to highlight the need for a new administration and new funding policies to rescue the field from an ethical logjam.

Scientists have jumped through a series of hoops trying to find ways around Bush’s 2001 restrictions. (Up until now, derivation of new stem-cell lines required that donor embryos be destroyed.) In the new method,a single cell is removed from an embryo in a procedure similar to that performed by fertility clinics.

This approach, developed by scientists at Advanced Cell Technologies, seems more sensible than previous efforts. (See “Stem Cells from Embryos–without Destroying Them.”) For example, last year, scientists created genetically modified embryos that could not develop past a certain point, thereby preventing the destruction of viable embryos. This satisfied some ethicists, but others countered that the method merely generated crippled embryos.

Now an NIH official says that while the method appears to satisfy federal funding rule, the only way to prove it would be to perform an experiment that no one would deem ethically acceptable: implanting embryos used in the experiment into a woman’s uterus to see if they can develop normally.

According to the Washington Post,

… the new work shows for the first time that healthy, normal embryonic stem cells can be cultivated directly from embryos without destroying them.

That means the work should be eligible for federal financing under President Bush’s six-year-old policy of funding only stem cell research that does not harm embryos, said study leader Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer at Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester.

But that is not likely, said Story Landis, who heads the National Institutes of Health Stem Cell Task Force, which oversees grants for studies on the medically promising cells.

The embryos Lanza used, which were donated for research, appear not to have been damaged, Landis acknowledged. However, she said, “it is impossible to know definitively” that the embryos were not in some subtle way harmed by the experiment. And “no harm” is the basis of the Bush policy, she said.

Landis said the only way to prove that the technique does not harm embryos would be to transfer many of them to women’s wombs and see whether the resulting babies were normal. But it would be unethical to do that experiment, she said, so the question cannot be answered.

The only solution to the quagmire? A new president who would support new federal funding guidelines already approved in Congress.

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