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Stem cells: When politics and science collide

On a political hot potato scale of one to 10, embryonic stem cell registers about a 13. Inextricably linked not only to the abortion debate, but also to patients' rights advocacy and the esoteric world of research science, the issue never fails to spark passionate, even hysterical, debate.

The Washington Post
U.S. to Issue New Rules for Research on Embryo Cells

And Wednesday, the Clinton administration dove right into the fray, releasing a set of long-awaited parameters guiding the use of specific embryonic cells, called stem cells, for federally funded medical research. The National Institutes of Health, which will oversee funding distribution, is set to become ground zero for the conflict.

The labyrinthine rules, painstakingly designed to address as many concerns as possible, are encyclopedic in their restrictions. Embryonic cells -- of which there are typically a surfeit after an attempt at in vitro fertilization -- must be harvested by privately funded labs and passed to the federally funded scientists, in order to avoid having government monies directly linked to the destruction of an embryo. Researchers also may only use embryos that are marked to be discarded, and embryo donors are not to be reimbursed. The administration hopes that by establishing such tight guidelines, they will be able to stanch the development of a black market for embryos, in which unscrupulous dealers would pay women for their donations.

Pro-life activists, long opposed to the use of embryonic cells in medical research, decried the administration's announcement, calling instead for the harvesting of certain adult cells, which some claim have scientific value similar to that of stem cells collected from, as pro-life advocates call it, "dismembered" embryos. Most scientists, however, take issue with such claims, pointing out that the cells in question are removed when the embryo is only days old, and contains exclusively undifferentiated cells -- a state that by definition precludes any possibility of dismemberment.

Patients' rights groups greeted the decision with enthusiasm, expressing hope that the new research will lead to better treatments -- and eventually cures -- for myriad diseases. Stem cells are the body's building blocks, which give rise to all of the other cells, tissues and organs in the body. Scientists believe it may be possible to use these cells to grow new organs, treat brain disorders, restore severed nerves in spinal injuries and perhaps even cure diabetes by growing new insulin-producing cells.

If Congress and the next president allow the guidelines to continue unmolested through the pipeline, they will apply to grant applications submitted after January 2001. George W. Bush, according to campaign spokespeople, "opposes federal funding for stem cell research that involves destroying a living human embryo." So the battle lines are already emerging. Of course, the very idea that legislation with such explosive implications could surf under congressional radar is utterly ridiculous. Violent opposition has already sprung up in the House, and Senate detractors are likely to add their voices to the debate as well.

Copyright © 2000 Time Inc.


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