'Master Cell' Research Spurs Debate
Lauren Neergaard,
AP Medical Writer

4:26 PM EDT; April 26, 2000; Washington, D.C. (AP) -- Paralyzed "Superman" star Christopher Reeve urged Congress on Wednesday to let federally funded research use master cells from discarded human embryos, questioning why some lawmakers would rather throw away the embryos than use them in experiments that Reeve believes could one day help him walk again. Is it more ethical for a woman to donate unused embryos that will never become human beings, or to let them be tossed away as so much garbage when they could help save thousands of lives?'' Reeve asked a Senate subcommittee hearing. But it's a controversial issue: Reeve's comments came after a Kansas senator compared the research to Nazism. "Federally funded human embryonic stem cell research is illegal, is immoral, and it's unnecessary," Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., told the Senate health appropriations subcommittee.

At issue are embryonic stem cells, the master cells that in very early embryos generate all the other tissues of the body. They are generating huge excitement among scientists because if doctors could learn how to control stem cells, they possibly could cure diseases like Alzheimer's, diabetes, or Parkinson's, or even repair broken spinal cords like Reeve's.

Already, private companies are culling stem cells from embryos donated by women who have some left over after fertility treatments. But the Federal government has not funded any research into embryonic stem cells because of a congressional ban on any research that destroys human embryos -- and taking stem cells from embryos does destroy them.

The National Institutes of Health has proposed a way around the ban. Draft guidelines now under review would let the NIH fund some embryonic stem cell research as long as the science is conducted only on cells already derived by private companies, so that NIH-funded scientists don't touch the actual embryos. Proposed legislation would go farther, letting women agree to donate their leftover embryos to federally-funded researchers. Both approaches face opposition by at least 70 members of Congress. "The embryos to be used here are discarded. If not used for the research, they will not be used at all," Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn., who co-authored the legislation, explained Wednesday. Thus, "no human life is to be taken."

"This sounds ... like what happened in World War II," Brownback countered, comparing embryo destruction for science to Nazi contentions that "these people are going to be killed, why not experiment on them." Yet the embryos in question are no bigger than the period at the end of a sentence. "To equate that with individuals Nazis experimented on is stretching the meaning of humanness," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who co-authored Specter's legislation. Because embryonic stem cells could save lives, "our position is just as moral as your position," Harkin added.

Brownback, however, noted that some stem cells do roam inside adults' bodies, and he urged scientists to use them as an alternative. Scientists are trying that, too. But two NIH scientists told senators that adult stem cells are far more scarce, and may not grow as well as those found in embryos. Thus many researchers believe trying both approaches is crucial. If government scientists cannot pursue embryonic stem cells, "I think this would be tying one hand behind our back," said Dr. Allen Spiegel, NIH's diabetes chief.