NIH approves first embryonic stem cells for research

Baptist Press
Posted: Dec 03, 2009 5:00 PM

WASHINGTON (BP)--The Obama administration took a barrier-breaking step into embryo-destructive research Wednesday when it announced the approval of the first human embryonic stem cell lines for use in federally funded experiments.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) authorized 13 stem cell lines -- 11 developed by Children's Hospital in Boston and two by The Rockefeller University in New York City -- for study by scientists using public funds. NIH is expected to approve 20 more stem cell lines, or colonies, Friday, according to The Washington Post.

President Obama initiated the process that led to the approval of the stem cells for study when he overturned in March a policy by President Bush that barred the use of federal funds for such research that results in the destruction of human embryos. In July, NIH issued final guidelines for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR), with the requirement the stem cells come from embryos created by in vitro fertilization and donated by the parents. The extraction of stem cells from a human embryo destroys the days-old human being.

While pro-life advocates had expected this step in funding embryo-destructive experimentation since Obama was elected in 2008, they still lamented the news.

"This is a tragic day for the cause of life in America," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "As of today, our government is going to provide taxpayer funding for embryo-destructive research, killing supposedly excess babies left over from fertility clinics after it has obtained parental consent. We know that hundreds of these babies have been implanted in their adoptive mothers' wombs and have developed into perfectly healthy, normal children. Each of these babies has the same potential to live the full and complete life God had planned for them if their lives weren't snuffed out to harvest their stem cells."

Richard Doerflinger, a pro-life specialist for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told The Post, "Ethically, we don't think any taxpayer should have to fund research that relies on destroying early human life at any state."

Both Land and Doerflinger pointed to the gratuitous nature of the new policy.

Embryonic stem cell research not only requires the destruction of human embryos, but it has yet to produce in private research any therapies in human beings and has been marked by the development of tumors in lab animals.

Human trials using stem cells from non-embryonic sources, however, have produced therapies for at least 73 ailments in human beings, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research. Extracting non-embryonic stem cells does not harm the donor. In addition, scientists have discovered in the last few years ways of converting adult cells into cells that have nearly the identical properties of embryonic ones. Such cells are called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells.

"What makes this decision even more grievous is the callousness it shows toward unborn human life," Land said. "In light of the recent advances in embryo technology with the development of induced pluripotent stem cells, there is no longer any scientific need to kill embryos in order to harvest their stem cells. This decision based on the new Obama administration guidelines is made out of disregard for the value of these children or for the mere sake of convenience. In either case, it's a moral outrage."

Doerflinger said, "he tragedy of this is multiplied by the fact that no one can think what the problem is that can only be solved by these cells."

The NIH's Wednesday announcement means researchers are now able to seek use of the stem cells in studies funded by the federal government. The NIH has funded this year more than 30 grants totaling more than $20 million for use in embryonic stem cell research, but the grantees have had to wait on stem cell lines to become available, according to the institute.

NIH Director Francis Collins said the initial 13 lines constitute "the first wave."

"This is the first down payment on what is going to be a much longer list that will empower the scientific community to explore the potential of embryonic stem cell research," he said, according to The Post.

Stem cells provide hope for producing cures for a variety of diseases, because of their ability to develop into other cells and tissues. Many scientists have promoted embryonic stem cell research because stem cells from embryos are pluripotent, meaning they can transform into any cell or tissue in the body. They also have proven to be more difficult to control in the laboratory, unlike non-embryonic stem cells, which are not pluripotent, and iPS cells.

Non-embryonic trials in human beings have resulted in treatments for such afflictions as cancer, juvenile diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart damage, Parkinson's, sickle cell anemia and spinal cord injuries, according to Do No Harm.

While prohibiting further funding of research that results in the destruction of embryos, Bush's policy allowed grants for experiments on stem cell lines already in existence when it was issued in August 2001. His rule did not prevent privately funded embryonic research.

Obama's March executive order did not affect a 1996 federal law that prohibits federal funds from being used for the creation of human embryos for research, as well as experimentation that destroys or threatens the health or life of embryos. ESCR proponents in Congress, however, have threatened to reverse that measure, known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment.

The Dickey-Wicker Amendment is part of the annual spending bill for the Department of Health and Human Services, so Congress has to approve it each year for it to remain in effect. The measure is named after its lead sponsors, former Republican Reps. Jay Dickey of Arkansas and Roger Wicker of Mississippi. Wicker is now a member of the Senate.

Before Bush took office, the Clinton administration drew up guidelines in 2000 that would have permitted ESCR funding as long as the stem cells were derived -- and the embryo destroyed -- using private money. Opponents of the Clinton guidelines said such a policy would violate at least the spirit of Dickey-Wicker and would encourage embryo destruction in order to receive federal grants. The Bush administration blocked the Clinton guidelines, however, leading to Bush's policy.

Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.

Copyright (c) 2009 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press