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Stem cells a priority for new Congress

By KRISTYN ECOCHARD, UPI Correspondent   |   Nov. 9, 2006 at 4:16 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Nov. 9 (UPI) -- Stem cell issues emerged as an important platform during the midterm elections, and despite some moral concerns the new Congressional leadership is poised to bring the issue to the table.

Presumptive Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has already listed funding for stem cell research as one of the top priorities of the new House.

"Bringing this issue up in the first 100 hours of Congress indicates the importance it had on the electorate," Daniel Perry, executive director of the Alliance for Aging Research, told United Press International.

Stem cell research focuses mostly on embryonic stem cells and how they might be used to create other kinds of tissue cells. A bill providing federal funding was passed by Congress earlier in Bush's presidency, but he vetoed it due to a religious outcry about the sanctity of life.

The support of stem cell research is promising but not a complete turn-around, said Jonathan Moreno, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

"On the surface, it doesn't appear there's a veto-proof majority in the House or the Senate," he told UPI. "But people may be more open now to hearing what the scientific evidence says."

One of the biggest challenges to supportive policy and funding other than from the private sector is the use of human embryos as the source of the stem cells, Henry Greely, professor at Stanford University, said during a public stem cell symposium at the National Academy of Sciences Tuesday.

Since the beginning of the debate, progress has been stalled by religious objections to endangering or destroying human embryos.

"The greatest religious concern has been the moral status of the embryo," said Suzanne Holland, associate professor of ethics and chair of the department of religion at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash. "The greatest ethical concern surely is sensible oversight -- the just use of healthcare resources and research for the common good."

The Catholic Church's stance is that life begins at the moment of conception. However, survey results from a 2005 Johns Hopkins University study show that among U.S. Catholics, 69 percent dissent from the view of the church and approve embryonic stem cell research. Perhaps more surprisingly, the poll showed 49.5 percent of fundamental evangelical Christians approve of stem cell research, Holland said.

In the scientific community there is still some debate as to when a child's life has begun, although most believe an embryo is a developing human life. It's still debatable, however, whether the fetus is developed enough at five days or 14 days of life. At 14 days, it's highly unlikely the embryo will divide into twins, which begins its individual identity, Holland said.

Researchers can also do stem cell research on tissue or adult stem cells instead of embryos, which is more acceptable to religious leaders. The answer, Holland suggested, lies in respecting developing human life at the appropriate time and allowing research that has the potential to cure disease in people.

Using the existing method types -- destroying potential viable human embryos, the "dead" embryo method and non-embryonic cell harvesting -- a variety of cell types can be produced.

Nerve, liver, cardiac muscle, skeletal, blood and insulin-creating cells can all be derived from embryonic stem cells, said Alan Colman, chief executive officer of Embryonic Stem Cell International and senior scientist for A*STAR Centre for Molecular Medicine in Singapore.

The tissue cells that are created, however, only simulate the activity of an original cell and aren't as effective as the original, he said.

In recent research, cardiac muscle cells have been transplanted to pigs, rats and mice in Holland and California.

While the animal transplants were successful, the 97 trials transplanting skeletal cells into humans have had some problems, Colman said. One of the patients died of irregular heartbeat, and the rest of the patients have since been hooked up to defibrillators.

Another challenge, Greely pointed out, is that while embryonic stem cells are able to turn into any kind of cell, and they can be used to replace large quantities of different tissue types, safety regulations are difficult to define and enforce.

Whether the research is funded, banned, permitted or supported could be decided by the language used, he added.

"It matters what we call these entities," Greely said. "It may affect whether funding is admissible under President Bush's policy."

To make the best of the available funding, Greely suggested the scientific community should rank the types of research methods and invest in the ones that are most promising.

But for now, it's clear the new Congress will be in favor of stem cell research, said Sean Tipton, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research.

He also said this issue is likely to be a major factor in the 2008 elections.

© 2006 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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