July 28th 2001

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: The message from Aston

COVER: Dumped imports threaten Golden Circle

Trade lessons for small countries

Straws in the Wind

Media: New program, same old ABC

ABARE's export figures 'fanciful' (letter)

Issues lost in barley debate (letter)

The good and bad of the US model

Children already have protectors - their parents!

The lessons of T.G.H Strehlow

Rearming school cadets

What Beijing Olympics Supporters Ignored

Adult stem cell research provides ethical genetic therapy

Taiwan wracked by political infighting

Books promotion page

Adult stem cell research provides ethical genetic therapy

by David Prentice

News Weekly, July 28, 2001
David Prentice, Professor of Life Sciences at Indiana State University and an Adjunct Professor of Medical and Molecular Genetics at the Indiana University School of Medicine, explains that medical research using stem cells from living adults is showing far more promise than using stem cells obtained by destroying human embryos. He was recently interviewed by Kathryn Lopez from America's National Review magazine.

Kathryn Lopez: What is the Responsible Stem Cell Research Act of 2001?

David Prentice: The Bill authorises US$30 million specifically targeted at supporting adult stem-cell research, which has already shown itself to be extremely promising for treating numerous degenerative diseases such as heart disease, stroke, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and diabetes.

Adult stem cells have been shown in animal models to repair heart damage, provide therapeutic benefit for stroke, and reverse diabetes. And adult stem cells have already been used successfully in human patients to relieve lupus, multiple sclerosis, and arthritis, to name a few. We simply need more money for research into this ethical and promising avenue. The bill also sets up a stem-cell bank for collection of umbilical cord blood and placenta, two very rich sources of stem cells.

KL: The proposed National Institute of Health bank would collect umbilical-cord blood and placenta blood. Are we confident that stem cells from these sources are the most efficient?

We know both sources are rich in stem cells, and there is evidence these cells have the ability to transform into many other tissue types. These are two sources that, if not banked by the family or [made available] for general use, will be lost, like a non-renewable resource. Other equally promising sources such as bone marrow can be drawn at any time from a patient or donor, so there's not the urgency for banking these cells.

KL: Do you have any feel for how much support the Bill will get?

I haven't heard of any counts on who supports it at this early stage, but this should be a bill that everyone can support! The research is not ethically contentious, it harms no human beings, it shows wonderful promise for treatment of serious diseases that affect millions of Americans, and cord-blood stem cells have already been used successfully in clinical trials. The Bill is solidly for patients and for medical research for disease treatments. It puts desperately needed money toward a successful line of research. I can't think of a sensible reason not to support it.

KL: There is so much emotion and misinformation framing the debate over stem-cell research, and such things as cloning. Is it possible, on a national or even international level, to have rational, accurate conversations about facts and limits?

It should be possible, though I know it's hard to put aside the emotion on both sides of the debate. The perception seems to be that the reward goes to those who make the most noise or the grandest claims. But we need to pause, put aside emotion and promises, and take a hard look at the facts. Science is not the final arbiter; science can only inform our choices regarding policy and ethics. In the end, the question we must ask is: What type of society do we want to be, and how do we view humanity?

KL: Recently, Christopher Reeve and seven scientists sued the Bush Administration for doing "irreparable harm" for halting Federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research for the time being, a policy that is currently under review. They accuse the Administration of "preventing or delaying the advent of a cure for paralysis, Parkinson's disease, diabetes and other debilitating conditions". Is that true? Or is there stem-cell research still going on in the US?

Delaying the funding of two or three projects (the number submitted) will not make or break any cure, especially in such an "embryonic" area of research, one which is frankly much farther away from such cures than adult stem-cell research. And embryonic stem-cell research will continue as it has been using private funds, likely by those same investigators, and likely with more funding than adult stem-cell research.

KL: Do you believe that it is possible, politically, to set reasonable limits on embryonic stem-cell research in the US? And, down the road, even, on cloning?

Realistically, no, not in terms of drawing some arbitrary half-way line and saying "you can only go this far but no farther" ... Put another way, how do you tell the difference between a human embryo produced by in vitro fertilisation or a cloned embryo? Or between an embryo intended for implantation and a live birth and an embryo intended for research and destruction? You can't. An embryo is an embryo, and we can't see (or regulate) intent.

Erwin Chargaff, the renowned biochemist, expresses it this way: "Research always runs the risk of getting out of control."

A total ban seems to be the only answer.

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