Benefits of the stem cell ban

Federal aversion to embryonic stem cell research had a silver lining: it galvanized the development of new biotechnologies in stem cell science, two bioethicists argue

Jun 8, 2009
John D. Loike and Ruth L. Fischbach
The NIH's recently proposed guidelines on the use of federal funds for human embryonic stem cell research have disappointed many scientists and patient advocates. This frustration mirrors the reaction to former President George W. Bush's 2001 restriction on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research. But it is generally unrecognized that Bush's ban had a beneficial effect in enriching the partnership between bioethics and biomedical research. Two events in the 1990s propelled bioethics into the global arena. In 1997, cloning of the sheep Dolly triggered a world-wide debate on the ethics of human cloning. One year later, scientists described methods to isolate stem cells from human embryos and successfully reprogram them into other types of cells. This innovation sparked the current debate on the morality of destroying human embryos to obtain precious stem cells. Responding to these debates, Bush chose to follow the religious or moral convictions of many Americans that personhood begins at conception, and subsequently restricted federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research. By acknowledging that bioethical issues related to deriving human embryonic stem cells are almost impossible to resolve, many scientists solicited non-federal funding to continue their investigations. Others developed innovative biotechnologies that respect the diverse moral views underlying these bioethical dilemmas, and obtain stem cells without destroying human embryos -- for example, stem cells derived from adult tissue and techniques to reprogram adult skin cells into embryonic-like induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. Another such technology, which uses genetic manipulations to reprogram one cell type into another without generating stem cells, may lead to promising treatments for diabetes by transforming one type of pancreatic cell into an insulin-producing cell that normally is destroyed in diabetes. These approaches were developed in the face of a federal ban and in response to the ethical concerns of the public and political sectors. Today, the creative spirit of scientists continues to address new bioethical challenges. Human embryonic stem cells, for example, can be turned into neurons and then integrated into mouse or non-human primate brain in order to model diseases such as Parkinson's that currently lack good animal models. Bioethical quandaries such as generating animals with human brain cells, or inadvertently creating human-animal chimeras that express human characteristics, have been so ethically challenging that they could not be resolved by local university IRB committees. Rather, these dilemmas were presented to the National Academy of Sciences where thoughtful bioethicists and scientists deliberated for one year to create a comprehensive set of ethical research guidelines that among other things set up Embryonic Stem Cell Research Oversight (ESCRO) committees. It is difficult to establish whether the stem cell research restrictions introduced by Bush affected the pace of stem cell innovation or whether the ensuing discoveries would have unfolded as rapidly had the ban not been issued. We recognize that necessity is the mother of invention. It is our belief that the federal restriction, along with the bioethical debates, promoted an accelerated pace of innovative biotechnology that influenced the direction of human stem cell research. While it is impossible to anticipate how scientists will respond to the finalized 2009 NIH human stem cell research guidelines, we are confident that scientists will respect and look to bioethical principles as they continue to develop technological innovations. As scientists, we support the guidelines proposed by the NIH allowing federal money to be used for research on stem cell lines from the store of more than 400,000 surplus embryos that were created through fertility treatments. In addition, we support the NIH's position requiring that the donors give fully informed, written consent. However, we believe the NIH should reverse its proposed rules not to fund research involving stem cell lines derived by somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), IVF embryos created for research, and parthenotes. SCNT especially should be funded; it is vital because it lets scientists work with cells taken from a patient, and will reduce the likelihood of tissue rejection in any cell replacement therapy. Furthermore, many cell lines which show great promise were derived using non-federal funding. They were usually developed following the National Academies of Sciences Guidelines that advocated ESCRO committees and IRB review. The proposed Guidelines do not include a grandfather clause that will make these promising ethically derived cell lines eligible for federal funding. We are encouraged by the public support for human stem cell research and would like to see increased federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research accompanied by ethical guidelines and appropriate oversight. Bioethicists have long held to the mantra that it is not what can be done; rather it is what should be done. Americans should be proud of and confident that their scientists will address the biomedical, bioethical, religious, and political challenges of treating and curing disease in creative ways. The genius of American research today is innovation; its hallmark is respect for humanity. Ruth L. Fischbach is the Director for Columbia University's Center for Bioethics and John D. Loike serves as Director of Special Projects at the Center for Bioethics.
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