Stem cell research advances
With more embryonic stem cell lines released and $21 million in funding earmarked, stem cell research advances.
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Near the close of 2009, President Obama lived up to his campaign promises, releasing more embryonic stem cell lines for research and earmarking $21 million more in funding.
According to Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, President Obama's executive order called for the NIH to issue new guidelines for stem cell research. Based on the new guidelines, researchers who had developed stem cell lines using non-government funded research were invited to submit their lines for review.
"As of today, there are 40 such cell lines that have been approved that are listed on a registry," said Collins. "And that in fact, federally-funded researchers may now begin to work with to try to understand critical questions about human development, and to move us forward in the hoped-for outcomes where this kind of approach may lead to really impressive and dramatic new breakthroughs in treatment of things like spinal cord injury, diabetes, Parkinson's disease."
Collins admits that it's unknown whether the breakthroughs will happen or not with the new cell lines, but says that at least research can be done.
Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald, Research Associate Professor in the Department of Oncology at Georgetown University, is concerned about whether the policy shift on stem cell research serves a greater good, or merely a particular political agenda.
The policy shift Fitzgerald refers to involves President Bush's initial release of 21 stem cell lines. "When he made his position clear, he said no more lines will be allowed to be created because that would require further destruction of human embryos. Now the idea is there is the possibility for an ongoing destruction of human embryos to create more lines as long as that process fits the particular criteria that are now being used by Dr. Collins and the people at the NIH to decide whether or not something is ethically justifiable."
Collins argues that the new policy still does not allow the use of federal funding to derive new stem cells lines from human embryos. "What the Obama executive order said was that if lines have been derived already, they may now be used for federal funding."
He adds that the guidelines only allow funding for lines derived from excess embryos that have been produced as part of in vitro fertilization. "So no embryos are being created for research purposes. I would personally have trouble with that, in fact."
But, Fitzgerald asks, now that the federal funding is there, is there incentive for more lines to be created with private money?
Additionally, Fitzgerald says, there have been advancements that make the need to use embryonic stem cells less urgent. "I mean if you go back 10 years and you listen to what certain scientists had to say, they were all saying adult stem cells couldn't do x, y and z and you had to have embryonic stem cell lines. Of course this was before the discovery of the process that allows for the induced pluripotent stem cells lines and all that.
"So has there been advance? Absolutely, and it's been unbelievable to many people, the extent of the advance. So I think you can continue to raise the question, since this is an issue for so many, is this still such a need?"
Which raises the question of whether there is a clear and consistent consideration of the moral and ethical concerns around stem cell research.
Collins admits it's still up for debate, but many experts on stem cell research conclude, based on scientific data, that there is currently no better substitute.
He argues that if it's possible, through science that follows ethical guidelines, to help people suffering from diseases, that in itself is a moral consideration. "And if the path to get there is to basically utilize embryos that are going to be discarded anyway -- as the process of in vitro fertilization always produces more than gets implanted -- then is it not a moral argument, even for somebody who has a very strong moral compass and who's a strong believer in God as I am, is it not an acceptable argument to say that this is a path forward, which while difficult, is entirely defensible?"
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