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Is There a Way Forward for Stem Cell Research?

By Norm Coleman and William Hurlbut

This week the House will once again take up the controversial issue of embryonic stem cell research. Two bills have passed in the Senate and, with House approval, could go to the President's desk. But only one of these bills holds out realistic hope for advancing this promising research, with the full support of the American people. The question now is whether the House will join with the Senate in passing that bill, and placing scientific progress above partisan politics.

Polls show that our nation is deeply divided over embryonic stem cell research. But the division is not about the stem cells themselves or their use in biomedical science. Rather, the controversy concerns the source from which these cells are obtained. By current methods, embryonic stem cells can only be procured through a procedure that requires the destruction of a living human embryo. Many Americans object to this, but would support research with these cells if there were a way to obtain them without harming embryos. The good news is that science is now clearly pointing to ways to do just that.

In May, 2005, the President's Council on Bioethics published a White Paper entitled "Alternative Sources of Human Pluripotent Stem Cells." This report outlines a range of proposals for pursuing stem cell research in a manner that could sustain broad social consensus while opening the fullest prospects for advances in science and medicine.

These techniques are already being developed. One involves obtaining stem cells from IVF embryos that have already died---the moral equivalent of harvesting organs from cadavers. Two other approaches--'altered nuclear transfer' and direct reprogramming of ordinary body cells--- do not involve the use of IVF embryos at all. Moreover, they offer the additional scientific advantage of providing tailor-made pluripotent stem cell lines of specific genetic types. These stem cells would be of great value for use in standardized scientific studies of genetic diseases, controlled testing for drug development, and possibly patient-specific immune-compatible cell therapies. Each of these approaches would avoid the current ethical and political controversy while opening full federal funding of stem cell research.

Encouraging advances in the development of these techniques have already been reported by top stem cell biologists publishing in leading scientific journals. In studies using mice, MIT stem cell biologist Rudolf Jaenisch has established proof-of-principle for altered nuclear transfer, and just this week in a series of articles in Nature magazine Jaenisch and researchers in Japan report dramatic progress in direct reprogramming. Because these methods do not involve the use of living embryos, the pluripotent stem cell lines produced by them would qualify for full federal funding.

This week, the House has an opportunity to consider the two bills sent on from the Senate. One of the bills, S.5, would provide federal funding for studies with stem cell lines derived from embryos left over from IVF clinics. Although its research purpose is noble, it would allow and encourage the destruction of human embryos, and the President will therefore veto the bill, as he did last year. And again, it appears the veto will not be overriden, so the passage of S.5 will not result in any new stem cell lines that qualify for NIH support.

The second bill, S.30, would specifically support the development of the alternative methods put forward by the President's Council on Bioethics. This bill, which passed the Senate with a large bipartisan majority, offers the prospect of new pluripotent stem cell lines that would qualify for federal funding. It would open a path toward scientific advances and away from social divisions. And, because it adequately addresses ethical issues, it would not be subject to a veto.

In charting our nation's course, the leaders of the House should seek a positive spirit in the search for a way forward with consensus, and should allow both bills, not just S.5, to be debated and voted on. Respect for human life is not a partisan issue. In 1999 President Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Commission issued a report entitled: "Ethical Issues in Human Stem Cell Research." Acknowledging that a week old human embryo is a form of human life that deserves respect, the Commission stated: "In our judgment, the derivation of stem cells from embryos remaining following infertility treatments is justifiable only if no less morally problematic alternatives are available for advancing the research."

Before Congress votes to provide federal funding for research that deeply offends the moral values of millions of Americans, we should explore the promising prospects of a technological solution that would provide ethically acceptable means of obtaining pluripotent stem cell lines. Such a win-win solution would be in keeping with the constructive and creative spirit of the American people and, at this crucial moment in the advance of science, would be a triumph for our nation as a whole.

Norm Coleman is a US Senator from Minnesota and author of S. 30, The Hope Act. William B. Hurlbut, MD, Neuroscience Institute at Stanford, is a member of the President's Council on Bioethics.

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