Finding Cures Without Killing

Ironically, it seems the medical advances thought to justify stem cell research are possible without using embryonic cells. Research using stem cells taken from adults and miscarried children, such as bone marrow cells, has already produced medical breakthroughs and offers promising avenues for future cures.

For example, a team of Canadian and Italian scientists destroyed the bone marrow in a group of mice so they could no longer produce blood cells. Into some of these mice, they injected neural stem cells from healthy mice, which most scientists have thought to be programmed to create only the three types of cells found in brain tissue. They were able to show that the neural stem cells metamorphosed into the blood-making stem cells needed by the mice lacking bone marrow. This raises the possibility that stem cells from a patient's own tissues might be used in the future to create whatever type of tissue needed by that patient, avoiding transplant rejection problems.

Another example: Researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center have opened up new avenues for research into the enzyme telomerase. The enzyme prolongs cell life 400%, enabling cells to live and divide like young cells. In the future, doctors may be able to grow skin grafts for patients from their own skin cells, grow insulin-producing cells for diabetics, and muscle tissue for those with muscular dystrophy.

Also, surgeons at Tufts University in Boston and Emory University in Atlanta have begun experimenting with gene therapy on patients with blocked arteries to the heart. Nineteen of 20 patients who have received injections of growth factor have successfully grown new blood vessels, reducing their chest pain and the need for angioplasty and bypass surgery.

None of these promising therapies requires the killing of humans, but that point seems insignificant to the NIH in its pursuit of funds for research using embryonic stem cells. Dr. Varmus has said that, on the basis of the HHS memo denying any legal impediment, NIH will prepare guidelines and distribute funds for such research. Seventy members of the House of Representatives and seven Senators have already written to HHS Secretary Donna Shalala opposing these plans. It remains to be seen if Congress and the American public will muster enough outrage to prevent the Administration's planned use of human embryos for research and destruction.