Debate Rages on over Stem Cell Research
Detroit Free Press - Michigan - KRTBN; Jul 25, 2001
BY JENNIFER DIXON

Little by little, Brooke Nelson's brain cells are dying. Her legs wobble, she can't run anymore, and she will probably die before her 21st birthday.

Her mother, Karen Knudson, believes there is hope for her 11-year-old daughter and that it is in a human embryo, in what are called stem cells.

But an embryo must be destroyed before the delicate cells can be extracted, grown and tested in a lab, and all of that is required before the stem cells can possibly provide a cure for Brooke.

That is what puts Brooke and her mother at the heart of one of the most charged bioethical debates in years: Should the federal government pay for research using human embryos?

"If we don't have that research, I'm going to lose something that's alive, has a smile, has a face, is just a wonderful child," says Knudson, a single mother who lives in Clawson and went in Washington two weeks ago to lobby for research money. "My daughter has a right to life."

But Pope John Paul II and others say innocent human life is destroyed when an embryo is destroyed.

President George W. Bush must soon decide whether to allow federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. During Bush's visit to the Vatican City on Monday, the pope urged him not to do it.

"I'll take that point of view into consideration as I make up my mind on a very difficult issue," Bush said. "It's the need to balance value and respect for life, with the promise of science, and the hope of saving life. And so I will go back home . . . continue to listen to points of view, and make up my mind when I'm ready to. And when I do, I'll make the case to the American people."

According to the National Institutes of Health, stem cells from human embryos are capable of becoming almost all of the specialized cells of the body and have the potential to generate replacement cells for a broad array of tissues and organs, such as the heart, pancreas and nervous system.

Those replacement cells in turn have the potential to treat burns, spinal cord injuries, and diseases such as Parkinson's, diabetes, cancer, and the disease Brooke has: ataxia-telangiectasia.

Stem cells can also be found in the specialized tissue of an adult, such as the brain, bone marrow, blood, spinal cord, skin or muscle.

Research using those stem cells is not controversial -- but scientists say those cells are more difficult to work with and the results are not as promising.

Unlike embryonic stem cells, the NIH says adult stem cells are rare and difficult to identify, and there is no population of adult stem cells that is capable of forming cells of all kinds.

Sue O'Shea, an associate professor at the University of Michigan's cell and developmental biology department, said human embryonic stem cells are good for research because they divide so rapidly, making them the best source of stem cells.

NIH, the largest single supporter of medical research in the country, has never funded embryonic stem-cell research, but several companies are doing the work with private dollars. NIH does fund adult stem-cell research and spent $226 million on that work last year.

Bush could:

--Support bipartisan Senate legislation that would limit stem-cell research to frozen, spare embryos donated by in vitro clinics, with the written consent of the egg and sperm donors.

--Allow federally funded research on embryonic stem cells already growing in laboratories.

--Allow researchers to take additional stem cells from embryos, but limit the number of embryos they may use.

--Bar federal funds for embryonic stem-cell research, even those derived from private sources.

The fight divides Congress, including Michigan's delegation.

Both senators support the embryonic stem-cell research, along with eight House members. Seven of Michigan's representatives oppose it, and one is undecided.

If Bush's decision does not satisfy conservatives, they could try to force a ban through a spending bill. If he goes against supporters, they too could try to use legislation to pump money into embryonic stem-cell research.

"This is a person who is 6 days old," says one of Michigan's opponents, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Menominee. "They have to wait until the embryo is 6 days old before they get the tissue they need."

Counters Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak: "We're not talking about something that is going to become a living being."

Until recently, embryonic stem cells had been taken from discarded embryos created by couples using in vitro, or artificial, fertilization to conceive a child.

To create the embryos, fertility doctors mix sperm and eggs in a dish, and let the eggs develop to the blastocyst stage. They then choose the healthiest looking blastocysts for implantation. The rest are discarded or frozen for future use. Far more embryos are created in the lab than are used.

Earlier this month, scientists at a Virginia clinic added more moral uncertainty to the debate when they announced that they had created, and destroyed, embryos solely for the purpose of stem-cell experiments.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, said he supports embryonic stem-cell research -- with safeguards "that ensure high ethical standards and respect for the dignity of human life. I, like Sen. (Orrin) Hatch, believe this research can save countless lives and alleviate much pain and suffering," he said.

As Congress debates the issue and Bush weighs his decision, Father John West's parishioners are looking to him for advice about stem-cell research. The question, he says, came up recently during a visit to the home of a man suffering from prostate cancer.

West is the pastor of St. Rita Catholic Church in Holly and the moral theologian for the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit.

"We have people in some pretty sad experiences -- Alzheimer's, heart disease, cancer and paralysis. We don't want to come across as opposed to research, and God wants us to be involved in ways to improve these situations, but there are some limits," West said.

"We really believe that when the egg and the sperm are fused, that's human life, and it ought to be regarded as human life, and you don't use human life for experimental purposes," West said.

While most religious leaders agree that the research poses a serious moral dilemma, they don't agree on whether it should be stopped.

The Rev. Daniel Syme of Temple Beth-El in Bloomfield Hills said he sees embryonic stem-cell research as a way of giving life. "It has the potential to cure many of the diseases that would take life," he said.

For Knudson, the time spent debating the issue means less time with Brooke, one of only about 500 U.S. children known to have A-T.

Such children are usually in wheelchairs by the time they are 10, and most do not survive their teens. As their brain cells die, they lose muscle control. They have compromised immune systems, often resulting in recurrent respiratory or other infections, and are nearly a thousand times more likely to get cancer than other children are.

"We have private research, but we need government funding to get it done faster," Knudson says. "When you know you have limited years, time is everything."

Brenda Rios and Keisha Patrick contributed to this report.


World Reporter