Thursday, August 26, 2010

US court rules that US government funding for stem cell research breaks law protecting human embryos

Many people in the world suffer from debilitating, devastating and/or life-threatening diseases such as diabetes, leukaemia, Parkinson's disease, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis. In the last two decades, medical breakthrough research has been done to find a way to cure the illnesses and to understand the nature and process of these diseases.

For this kind of research scientists have made use of stem cells which have been harvested from human embryos. According to De Wert and Mummery, 'Stem cells' could be defined as "primitive cells with the capacity to divide and give rise to more identical stem cells or to specialize and form specific cells of somatic tissues".

There are two types of stem cells: "embryonic stem (ES) cells which can only be derived from pre-implantation embryos and have a proven ability to form cells of all tissues of the adult organism (termed 'pluripotent') and 'adult' stem cells, which are found in a variety of tissues in the fetus and after birth and are, under normal conditions, more specialized ('multipotent') with an important function in tissue replacement and repair." [1]

Stem cell research using human embryos is a subject of heated discussions in many countries. Although further research offers hope for the treatment of several devastating diseases, use of human stem cells is also controversial because stem cells are harvested from human, pre-implantation embryos. Embryos and stem cells have been regarded as indispensable for medical research to find a treatment for a number of diseases and disorders such as diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, and Parkinson's disease. [2].

Most embryos which are used for stem cell research are spare embryos for IVF treatment but embryos have also been created for the derivation of embryonic stem cells. This practice is also under discussion. The most controversial is the use of human embryonic stem cells for therapeutic cloning [3]. Therapeutic cloning concerns the process of taking genetic material from a cell of the body and transplanting it into an egg cell to produce stem cells [4]. Reproductive cloning can be defined as human cloning for the purposes of creating a human being [5]. Therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning are somatic cell nuclear transfer (SNCT) techniques which involves the cloning of an embryo. In the United States of America (USA) there is no federal law which prohibits therapeutic and reproductive cloning.

Somatic cell nuclear transfer can create clones for both reproductive and therapeutic purposes. The diagram depicts the removal of the donor nucleus for schematic purposes; in practice usually the whole donor cell is transferred. Source: wikipedia

The Obama Administration is in favor of human embryonic stem cell research. However, it recently found an opponent of the current federal policy in the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia. James Sherley, an MIT scientist, and several other scientists who oppose human embryonic stem cell research, filed a case against the decision of the Obama administration to federally fund embryonic stem cell use research.

Sherley and others who use adult stem cells for their research in stead of embryonic cells, argued that the National Institute of Health guidelines regarding human embryonic stem cells are an infraction of the Dickey-Wicker amendment. This amendment is a law which prohibits the use of taxpayer funds for research purposes involving the destruction of human embryos. [6] Sherley and other scientists were of the opinion that as a result of the fact that they had to compete for government funding with researchers that used embryonic cells, their careers were damaged. [7].

Besides arguing that the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research unfairly reduces the funding for research using adult stem cells, James Sherley also is of the opinion that this particular kind of research is responsible for killing human life - the life of embryos that are used for research purposes. [8]

The Federal District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the federal funding of stem cell research breaks law protecting human embryos. The funding of stem cell research has therefore been temporarily barred. [9] Federal Judge Royce Lamberth stated that research and study on stem cells derived from human embryos that will be destroyed afterwards would be an infraction of the Dickey-Wicker amendment (1995). [10] With regard to the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, Judge Lamberth said the following:

"The Dickey-Wicker Amendment is unambiguous. It prohibits research in which an embryo is destroyed, discarded or knowingly subject to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed under applicable regulations. The guidelines violate that prohibition by allowing federal funding of [embryonic stem cell] research because ESC research depends upon the destruction of a human embryo". [11]

The court's decision on blocking the federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research has led to criticism and astonishment. The Obama administration is going to appeal the ruling of the federal court. Whereas president Obama was in favor of the federal funding of stem cell research, former president Bush and his administration were against the use of embryonic stem cells because it would imply that embryos used for scientific purposes would have to be discarded or destroyed. This way the right to life of the embryo would be breached. Opponents to human embryonic stem cell research are of the opinion that it is unethical to use and destroy human embryos for research purposes. The adversaries to embryonic stem cell research prefer to opt for medical research without the use of human embryos. In stead, they use other lines of stem cells, for example adult stem cells, like MIT scientist James Sherley.

Robert Klein, chairman of the governing board of the Californian Institute for Regenerative Medicine, a privately funded institute, was surprised by the ruling of the court: "It would be immoral to unnecessarily delay the critical medical research that is vital for human embryonic stem cell therapies to reach patients suffering from chronic disease and injury". Mr. Klein sees no problem in using the human embryonic cells because the researchers only use those embryonic cells which are thrown away by fertility clinics when they become redundant: "We must remember that the microscopic cells used for this research would otherwise be thrown away by in vitro fertilization clinics, by couples that had finished their family planning". [12]

Democratic Senator Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee agrees that stem cell research should not be stopped because "Embryonic stem cell research offers hope to millions of Americans who are suffering from debilitating and life-threatening diseases". [13]

Those in favor of human embryonic stem cell research are of the opinion that further research alongside other kinds of stem cell research is vital to science and further medical research. It could help us understand the process of cell transformation and how diseases such as diabetes and blindness could be treated. Christian denominations (such as Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals and Lutherans) and other pro-life advocates are of the opinion that an embryo is a living being and that it will be killed while extracting stem cells from a human embryo during research. Human embryos contain human DNA and are therefore human life although in an early stage of physical development. [14]

Some opponents of such research are of the opinion that a human life is formed from the moment of fertilization and that research involving the extraction of stem cells would thus involve first degree murder. [15]. The mentioned Christian denominations do support adult stem cell research because this kind of research does not involve the destruction of embryos. [16]

The last word has not been said about this controversial issue. The ruling does not only affect the research programs in the USA - it also could have a big impact on policy regarding human embryonic stem cell research in other countries. The Obama administration has filed appeal. Now we have to wait.

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[1] As quoted from: G. de Wert & C. Mummery, "Human embryonic stem cells: research, ethics and policy", 18 Human Reproduction (2003), p. 672.
[2] As quoted from: "Human reproductive cloning", Medicine Net, Medical Terms Dictionary.
See also G. de Wert & C. Mummery, "Human embryonic stem cells: research, ethics and policy", 18 Human Reproduction (2003), p. 672.
[3] As quoted from: G. de Wert & C. Mummery, "Human embryonic stem cells: research, ethics and policy", 18 Human Reproduction (2003), p. 672.
[4] As quoted from: "Human reproductive cloning", Medicine Net, Medical Terms Dictionary.
[5] As quoted from: "Human reproductive cloning", Medicine Net, Medical Terms Dictionary.
[6] Government funding for stem cell research blocked by US court, The Guardian
[7] Ibid.
[8] Stem cell opponent has challenged authority before, Reuters
[9] As quoted from: Government funding for stem cell research blocked by US court, The Guardian
[10] Ibid.

[11] As quoted from: ibid.
[12] As quoted from: Statement Regarding US District Court Ruling Freezing NIH Funding of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research, California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM)
[13] As quoted from: "Stunned" government to appeal stem-cell ruling, Reuters
[14] Stem cell controversy, Wikipedia
[15] Human stem cell research: all viewpoints, Religious tolerance
[16] Stem cell controversy, Wikipedia

Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent. They are able to develop into any type of cell, excepting those of the placenta. Only embryonic stem cells of the morula are totipotent: able to develop into any type of cell, including those of the placenta. Quoted from: wikipedia. Image from: wikipedia.

1 comment:

Niels said...

An important question in this case (as already pointed out by the article published here) is whether Adult or Embryonic Stem Cells are better to perform research upon.

A second question is if it would be better to destroy the Embryos not used for IVF or to use them for research?
One way or the other the embryos will be used/destroyed anyway.

Let us hope this ruling in the US does not have much repercurssions for research in the rest of the world.

Laws are different the world round and what is valid and important in the USA is less important and valid (or more) in other countries.

A very good article regarding Stemm Cell Research and the ethical questions surrounding it.