Science Sunday: Stem Cell Debate May Take New Turns

New breakthrough answers some of the ethical objections to embryonic stem cell research. But the technology is young.Recent breakthroughs that may permit the creation of stem cells for research without the use of embryos offer hope of reducing ethical conflicts, but the jury is still out on their impact, according to several experts.

Two different groups of researchers — one from the U.S. and one from Japan — announced last month that they were able create pluripotent stem cells from adult skin cells. A pluripotent cell is one that can become any of the 220 types of cells in the human body.

While the research is promising, it remains a long way from stilling the arguments about embryonic stem cell work. Many critics oppose embryonic stem cell research for the same reasons that they oppose abortion. But the field promises dramatic new treatments or cures for a host of illnesses and injuries, including heart attacks, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, spinal cord injuries and others.

What’s needed, says at least one expert, is a government ethics panel that mediates and regulates this research.

Suzanne Holland, head of the religion department at the University of Puget Sound and an expert on stem cell ethics, says that much of the ethical debate on stem cells that has centered on the destruction of embryos is misplaced. She said:

“The main ethical issue, in my opinion, is oversight and regulation of the whole industry surrounding the human body. There’s no oversight on stem cell research  in the U.S. that goes on in the private sector — which is where most of the research is occurring.

“There needs to a regulatory body to oversee ethical research like there are in Britain and many other countries. The U.S. has shied away from that because we don’t like to regulate the market … It’s very unpopular in a Republican regime.”

Francis Fukuyama, professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins University, wrote last fall in the journal Life Sciences Law & Industry Report:

“We believe that rather than trying to reinterpret or augment the statutory powers of current regulators, or passing new targeted legislation, it is much better to create a new federal agency designed specifically to deal with the problems and challenges posed by new reproductive technologies and biomedical research.”

Fukuyama says this group should regulate research on cloning, genetic diagnosis at fertility clinics, research involving human embryos and the commercialization of elements of human reproduction. Regulatory bodies already exist in a few nations: Australia, Canada, France and Britain.

Mark S. Frankel, director of the Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said that while the new research is important, it will not soon replace the need for embryonic stem cells in research:

“There is a long road ahead before we can say these experiments are the standards by which stem cell research can be done in the future. The bottom line is that those are experiments, and so we’re not quite sure whether they have lasting value.

“We’re hoping that they will because the technique is much easier than cloning human embryos or extracting them.

“This work is experimental. It needs to be done again and again in humans. It’s not yet cause for throwing out the embryonic stem cell research, on which this new research is based.”

This past January, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed legislation sponsored by Colorado Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette that would have expanded federal support for stem cell research. The legislation was vetoed by President George W. Bush. Stem cells, because of the vast potential of the research, is a rare scientific debate that has had repercussions in the political arena.