Washington Post Blurs Debate on Stem Cell Research

Date: 04/30/2000

April 2001

In a front-page April 19 story, “Embryonic Breakthroughs,” the Washington Post reports that “publicly funded scientists remain banned from the field [of stem cell research] because federal guidelines for the ethical conduct of stem cell research languish unfinished.”

In fact, most of the promising research cited as examples by the Post would be unaffected by the proposed NIH guidelines. Some of this research is already eligible for federal funding now, while some of it would not be eligible even if the guidelines were approved as currently written.

The Post cites the following examples of promising stem cell research:

– Dr. Evan Snyder’s work in Boston in regenerating nerve cells. But Snyder’s team has been using adult and fetal neural stem cells that are eligible for federal funding now (see: Paul Recer, “Stem Cells May Restore Neurons,” Associated Press, June 8, 1999; Maggie Fox, “New way found in U.S. to grow human brain cells,” Reuters, Oct. 30, 1998). This work is unaffected by the current ban on funding destructive human embryo research.

– Dr. John Gearhart’s work in Baltimore using “embryonic germ cells” from aborted fetuses. Though certainly the subject of much ethical debate, this work as well is unaffected by the current embryo research ban; the cells are not harvested from live embryos but taken from later-stage fetuses after they are already dead. Such research is authorized and regulated by a separate federal law (42 USC §§289g-1, 289g-2).

– Research on stem cell cultures obtained from human embryos by University of Wisconsin researchers. Federal support for such research is currently banned; but it would remain banned under the proposed NIH guidelines, because the Wisconsin team did not meet the NIH’s “informed consent” requirements for obtaining the embryos from their parents. (The Post article notes that these researchers hope to be “grandfathered in” by the NIH. That is, they want a retroactive exemption from the law, even though the NIH claims that its informed consent requirements are exactly what help make the research “ethical.” No such exemption has been proposed by the NIH as yet.)

In all three cases, the NIH guidelines as presently written are essentially irrelevant to advances in stem cell research. That was the real story, unfortunately never made clear by the Post report.

The Post further suggests that while the guidelines “would be binding only on federally funded researchers,” they are “designed to prevent.. abuses” by providing a “gold standard” for privately funded research as well. But this ignores two facts. First, there is already a federal standard on embryo research — not mere “guidelines,” but statutory language enacted by Congress in each of the last four fiscal years, forbidding federally funded research in which embryos are destroyed — and privately funded researchers are not hesitating to ignore this “gold standard.” Second, the NIH guidelines themselves are not designed to prevent privately funded research from doing things that are forbidden using federal funds research — they are designed to encourage them to do these things. The guidelines leave in place the current ban on funding the direct destruction of human embryos, but instruct researchers in how to kill the embryos with other funds so their research on the resulting cells can receive federal funds. Such a “division of labor,” in which privately funded research is encouraged to take up whatever unethical tasks cannot directly be supported with federal funds, is a key concept behind the proposed guidelines.

In a follow-up article on adult stem cell research on April 24, the Post apparently tried to balance its April 19 story on the claimed benefits of embryonic stem cells by reporting on “an alternative to embryo studies.” But even this article provided an incomplete picture in two regards:

First, the follow-up article concentrates on only one aspect of stem cell research: The finding that adult stem cells may be unexpectedly capable of turning into other categories of cells if given the right signals. The article notes that the adult cells may nonetheless not be quite as versatile as embryonic cells. Neglected here is the fact that no such “alchemy” (the Post‘s word) is needed for the great majority of applications cited in the article, because adult stem cells have already been discovered of exactly the type needed for the research. Researchers can now obtain viable stem cells from nerve, bone marrow, blood and pancreatic tissue. This article also does not point out the potentially hazardous “down side” of embryonic cells’ great versatility, though this is mentioned in the April 19 article – the fact that such changeable cells could “turn into the wrong type of tissue or become tumors” once transplanted into the body. The evidence is growing that adult stem cells may actually be both safer and more clinically useful than embryonic cells.

Second, the April 24 article claims that “work on embryonic and fetal stem cells is much more advanced than work on adult cells,” with some predicting clinical trials for nerve disorders “within the next year or so.” This claim is confusing and needs clarification. Fetal stem cells are biologically in the “adult” realm, already specialized as particular kinds of cells; and they are eligible for federal funding now. In any case, Evan Snyder’s team announced in June 1999 that its work using adult neural stem cells to “re-seed” and repair human brain tissue would be ready for clinical trials “within two years” (MSNBC, June 7, 1999) — in other words, in a year or so from now. Osiris Therapeutics’ research using adult bone marrow stem cells to repair and regenerate bone, cartilage and other tissues is already in human clinical trials now. Clearly, adult stem cell research is closer to actual treatment of patients in many areas than embryonic stem cell research is.

As one researcher, Fred Gage, says in the April 24 story: “In general, I think we don’t know enough about the potential of any of these cells to say that one has greater potential than another.” Since adult cell research may have equal or greater potential, and everyone agrees that funding it is not immoral or illegal, shouldn’t the federal government find out more about the promise of these cells before forcing taxpayers to help destroy human lives for a project that may be completely unnecessary?