The White House on Wednesday issued a statement saying that \"[a]ny use of human embryos for research purposes raises serious ethical concerns\" in response to a study published in the Aug. 24 edition of the journal Nature that describes a technique that could derive human embryonic stem cells without destroying the embryo, the Washington Post reports (Weiss, Washington Post, 8/24). Federal funding for embryonic stem cell research is only allowed for research using embryonic stem cell lines created on or before Aug. 9, 2001, under a policy announced by President Bush on that date (Kaiser Daily Women\'s Health Policy Report, 7/28). Bush in July vetoed the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005 (HR 810), which would have expanded stem cell lines that are eligible for federal funding and allowed funding for research using stem cells derived from embryos originally created for fertility treatments and willingly donated by patients (Kaiser Daily Women\'s Health Policy Report, 7/20).
Robert Lanza, medical director of Worcester, Mass.-based Advanced Cell Technology, and colleagues described the technique as removing a single cell -- known as a blastomere -- from a three-day-old embryo with eight to 10 cells and using a biochemical process to create embryonic stem cells from the blastomere, the Los Angeles Times reports. Researchers removed 91 blastomeres from 16 thawed embryos donated by fertility clinic patients and found that more than half of the blastomeres began to multiply and that in two cases the blastomeres became embryonic stem cells. The method of removing a cell from the embryo is based on preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD, which usually is used to test the cell for genetic deficiencies (Kaplan, Los Angeles Times, 8/24). Lanza said that the research destroyed some of the embryos used but that single-cell extractions that leave the embryo unharmed should be feasible in the future (Hamilton, Wall Street Journal, 8/24). In addition, the researchers wrote that single cells taken from three-day-old embryos \"have never been shown to have the intrinsic capacity to generate a complete organism in any mammalian species\" (Cook, Boston Globe, 8/24). Ronald Green, director of Dartmouth College Ethics Institute and chief of an ethics panel that ACT assembled to evaluate the experiment prior to its implementation, said, \"You can honestly say this cell line is from an embryo that was in no way harmed or destroyed\" (Washington Post, 8/24).
White House Reaction, Funding Eligibility
The White House statement said, \"The president is hopeful that, with time, scientists can find ways of deriving cells like those now derived from human embryos but without the need for using embryos\" (Washington Post, 8/24). Peter Watkins, a White House spokesperson, added, \"This technique does not resolve\" ethical concerns about embryonic stem cell research, \"but it is encouraging to see scientists at least make serious efforts to move away from research that involved the destruction of embryos\" (Boston Globe, 8/24). The President\'s Council on Bioethics last year in a report before the PGD technique had been used to create embryonic stem cells wrote that PGD seems to be a safe means of potentially deriving embryonic stem cells because 1,000 infants were born as a result of using it. However, the report notes that children born after PGD should be followed for potential health risks, concluding, \"Subjecting otherwise healthy embryos to biopsy procedures in order to derive stem cells seems ethically troubling\" (Johnson, San Jose Mercury News, 8/24). James Battey, head of NIH\'s Stem Cell Task Force, said he is not yet sure if the method reported by Lanza and colleagues would be eligible for federal funding under current regulations, the New York Times reports (Wade, New York Times, 8/24). Battey said NIH would ask HHS\' general counsel for a legal opinion if researchers applied for grants using the technique. According to the Post, policymakers will need to consider restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, as well as a congressional rule preventing any appropriations to HHS for the purpose of research \"in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death.\" Battey said the process is a \"derivation process, so it\'s unclear to me where the ... policy stands,\" adding, \"[I]t\'s not a scientific call. It\'s a legal call\" (Washington Post, 8/24).
Congressional Republicans who led opposition to measures that would have expanded embryonic stem cell research said the study does not curb their objections to the research, the New York Times reports. Brian Hart, spokesperson for Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who opposes embryonic stem cell research, said the new technique amounts to \"creating a twin and then killing that twin.\" Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said, \"It\'s tragic that the current Republican Congress continues to rubber stamp the restrictions that deny federal funding for scientists engaged in medical research that could save or improve countless lives.\" Some political analysts said the results of the study might enhance the importance of stem cell-related issues before the November elections. Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan analyst of congressional races, said the issues will \"paint\" those opposing embryonic stem cell research \"in a corner\" (New York Times, 8/24). William Hurlbut, a Stanford University professor who serves on the President\'s bioethics council, said that removing one cell from an embryo might be an intolerable risk to embryos (Wall Street Journal, 8/24). Leon Kass, former chair of the bioethics council, said, \"I do not think that this is the sought-for, morally unproblematic and practically useful approach we need,\" adding that the long-term risk of PGD is unknown (New York Times, 8/24). Fertility experts who perform PGD have said that there are no scientific studies tracking children born after undergoing PGD during IVF (Los Angeles Times, 8/24). Lawrence Goldstein, a stem cell researcher at the University of California-San Diego, said the study is a \"moderately important step forward,\" adding, \"Scientifically, it\'s good to have another source of embryonic stem cells\" (Vergano, USA Today, 8/24). Elana Gates, vice chair of ob-gyn at the University of California - San Francisco, said it is not yet clear how many clinics that provide IVF services would want to add the process to their procedures. She added that the technique would delay IVF treatments and that women would have to consent to the procedure (Hall, San Francisco Chronicle, 8/24).
Several broadcast programs reported on the study:
- ABCNews\' \"World News Tonight\": ABCNews\' Tim Johnson reports on the study (Johnson, \"World News Tonight,\" ABCNews, 8/23). Video of the segment is available online.
- NBC\'s \"Nightly News\": NBC\'s Robert Bazell reports on the study (Bazell, \"Nightly News,\" NBC, 8/23). The complete segment is available online in Windows Media.
- NPR\'s \"All Things Considered\": The segment includes comments from Battey; Kass; Arnold Kriegstein, neural stem cell researcher and director of UCSF\'s Institute for Regenerative Medicine; and Lanza (Boyce, \"All Things Considered,\" NPR, 8/23). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer. Audio from the podcast of the journal Nature of Lanza discussing his team\'s process is available online in RealPlayer.
- NPR\'s \"Morning Edition\": The segment includes comments from Lanza and Kathy Hudson, director of the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University (Inskeep, \"Morning Edition,\" NPR, 8/24). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
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