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CNN's Eileen O'Connor discusses the Capitol Hill hearing on stem cell research


Washington (CNN) -- Advocates for stem cell research told U.S. Senators on Capitol Hill Thursday it's time to move forward with the promising, but controversial, scientific work. Scientists, actors and activists testified before the Senate subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, which is trying to determine what kinds of patients might benefit from the research.

Eileen O'Connor is a medical correspondent for CNN.

Chat Moderator: Who is scheduled to testify today both for and against federal funding of stem cell research?

Eileen O'Connor: There were famous actors and actresses, including Michael J. Fox who suffers from Parkinson's disease and Mary Tyler Moore who suffers from diabetes. In addition, there was a minister who was adopted, who also suffers from diabetes, and was opposed. There were medical researchers who were in favor of allowing federally funded labs to conduct this research.

  • Read more about the hearing and why stem cell research is controversial
  • Do the benefits of stem cell research outweigh the costs?

    Chat Moderator: Opponents of stem cell research involving embryos say that we should investigate advances in research involving adult stem cells. Can you tell us a little about that research?

    Eileen O'Connor: Critics of using human embryos, such as aborted fetuses or frozen embryos that were created in in vitro fertilization clinics -- and are set to be discarded -- say there have been advances in research involving adult stem cells. In each of our organs there are stem cells, these so called blank cells that can differentiate into different types of body tissue. Recent experiments showed success with turning blood cells into neural cells. these blood stem cells were taken from an adult. So critics say it would be less controversial to put more research into these kinds of sources. But medical researchers at today's hearings say stem cells from embryos have shown in the lab to be more easily adaptable, and in more plentiful supply than these adult stem cells.

    Question from Chaim: Well, if they have been discarded why should there be opposition?

    Eileen O'Connor: Well, that was the point of those who are in favor of allowing federally funded labs to do this research. The debate boils down to whether one agrees with abortion and in vitro fertilization. Critics say these practices are unethical, and that in conducting this research you give "rational" for abortion. Also, when the stem cells are harvested from frozen embryos, those embryos can no longer be implanted into a uterus and become a viable baby. So critics say researchers are in essence "killing" the embryo. But supporters say, given abortion is legal in this country, as is in vitro fertilization. Then it can be argued that it would be unethical not to conduct this potentially lifesaving research on embryos that would have been discarded anyway.

    Question from Yogi-Bear: When this business is in full operation, what prevents women from getting pregnant for the purpose of the production of stem cells (which may exists already) and then aborting, in order to collect their reward for production?

    Eileen O'Connor: The federal guidelines have strict provisions that prevent anyone from profiting from harvesting stem cells. Basically, people can only be paid small fees, the cost of the time it takes for the lab technician to do the work. There is no payment for the tissue. Supporters of allowing federal labs to conduct this research say that potential misuse or markets are exactly why these labs should be allowed to do this research. They argue with federal funding comes more oversight and adherence to strict ethical guidelines that would prevent a market in fetal tissue.

    Question from Haley-CNN: Could stem cells be donated, say, in the case of SIDS or frankly from anyone whose remains have been donated for organ transplant?

    Eileen O'Connor: The potential is there, particularly if researchers find more promise in these "adult" stem cells. But the science isn't there yet. Potentially, you could produce your own stem cells to cure your own disease. For example, if you were suffering from heart disease, perhaps they could harvest stem cells from your blood, reproduce them using growth factors, and then inject them into your heart, growing new blood vessels to replace damaged or blocked ones. This is the potential, but it is rather like scientific dreaming at the moment.

    Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts for us?

    Eileen O'Connor: Michael J. Fox points out that the more we debate this the more time is wasted for people like him. but these kinds of debates are good as medical science advances. Internationally, they are looking into therapeutic cloning, where the patient is cloned and then stem cells are harvested from the therapeutic cloned embryo. The U.S. government is strongly opposed to this and any type of human cloning. But these seemingly far-fetched ideas must be discussed as they may quickly become very real.

    Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Eileen O'Connor.

    Eileen O'Connor: Thanks for having me.

    Eileen O'Connor joined the chat via telephone from Washington, D.C. and typed for herself. The above is an edited transcript of the chat, which took place on Thursday, September 14, 2000.

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    August 18, 2000
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    December 6, 1999
    NIH Announces Plans for Controversial Human Embryo Cell Research
    December 1, 1999
    Stem cells: When politics and science collide
    August 24, 2000
    Researcher grow brain stem cells from bone marrow stem cells
    August 15, 2000
    Pope condemns human embryo cloning
    August 29, 2000
    NIH publishes draft guidelines for stem cell research
    December 1, 1999

    National Institutes of Health (NIH)
    National Bioethics Advisory Commission
    University of Minnesota Center for Bioethics
    Juvenile Diabetes Foundation

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