Yuri Gripas  /  AP
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, right, speaks during a joint news conference held with Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, second from right, and Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., center, on legislation related to stem cell research, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Robert Klein, front seated, is the Founder of Spinal Cord Injury Independence.
updated 6/30/2005 10:58:52 AM ET 2005-06-30T14:58:52

Embryonic stem cell research that doesn’t destroy budding human life? Right now, it’s possible only in theory, or on animals.

But those alternatives to the most promising stem cell science are enough to win the attention of anti-abortion Republicans and President Bush.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and other GOP lawmakers are considering legislation drawn from a report in May by Bush’s Council on Bioethics, which studied research that might carry medical promise but is in its infancy.

In some cases, the research is ethically objectionable, the panel wrote. Nonetheless, it said four types of studies “deserve the nation’s careful and serious consideration.”

Ethical boundaries
Bush was receptive to funding the theoretical approaches rather than medically more-promising research that destroys embryos, three lawmakers who have discussed the subject with him told The Associated Press.

“There was a sense around the table that if we could discover a way to extract the stem cells without destroying the embryo, that that was something that nearly everyone could support,” said Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., who discussed the option with Bush at a White House meeting earlier this month. “The president was very enthusiastic about that. He clearly supported it.”

Another possible compromise, being drafted by Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., a biological engineer, would send $15 million to the National Institutes of Health for stem cell research on animal embryos, according to a draft obtained by the AP.

“Congressman Bartlett sought and received technical assistance from the administration to ensure that the bill that he is working on would be consistent with the president’s principles and goals,” said Lisa Wright, Bartlett’s spokeswoman.

Bush has repeatedly said he would veto a bill the House passed last month backing standard embryonic stem cell research and any similar version by the Senate, which is expected to turn to the issue in July.

“We’ll probably consider a number of bills,” Frist told the AP.

Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who also attended the meeting with Bush, said he may try to amend one of Congress’ must-pass spending bills to provide federal money for specific studies outlined in the bioethics council’s report.

  1. Don't miss these Health stories
    1. Splash News
      More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?

      Rates of women who are opting for preventive mastectomies, such as Angeline Jolie, have increased by an estimated 50 percent in recent years, experts say. But many doctors are puzzled because the operation doesn't carry a 100 percent guarantee, it's major surgery -- and women have other options, from a once-a-day pill to careful monitoring.

    2. Larry Page's damaged vocal cords: Treatment comes with trade-offs
    3. Report questioning salt guidelines riles heart experts
    4. CDC: 2012 was deadliest year for West Nile in US
    5. What stresses moms most? Themselves, survey says

Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., said that in his own talk with Bush, he found the president “looking for a way to stay within his ethical boundaries.”

Almost two-thirds of Americans say they support embryonic stem cell research and a majority of people say they would like to see fewer restrictions on taxpayer funding for those studies, according to recent polling.

Experimental techniques
The proposal may free senators from a tight spot between Bush’s veto threat and public pressure for embryonic stem cell research, which has shown promise in the search for cures for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other diseases.

But it also would spend millions of dollars on studies whose value is speculative. Some of the techniques have not even been attempted in animals.

Frist, who is a heart and lung transplant surgeon, told the AP at least three of the processes on the bioethics council’s list met his criteria for funding embryonic stem cell research.

“All of the research you have there stops short of the creation of an embryo for experimental purposes, and short of destruction of an embryo for experimental purposes,” he said. “That is the direction I think we should explore.”

Those are the same boundaries set out by Bush, who in a 2001 executive order prohibited federal funding of any research using human embryonic stem cells harvested after Aug. 9 of that year.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a chief supporter of traditional embryonic stem cell research, shrugged at the notion of an alternative.

“Most of these ideas are nothing but theories. They haven’t been tested,” he said Wednesday.

The processes studied by the council could theoretically develop embryonic stem cell lines — which can develop into any cell in the body — without harming the embryo. They would:

  • Derive stem cells from technically dead embryos. When embryos frozen during in-vitro fertilization are thawed, some never resume dividing and thus are discarded. No one knows whether scientists could find healthy stem cells inside an embryo already so damaged that it wouldn’t grow, or coax them to live when transferred out of that embryo.
  • Extract stem cells from two-day-old embryos using a non-lethal biopsy technique. Until now, most stem cells have been culled from embryos that contain 100 or so cells. However, in vitro fertilization clinics frequently extract one cell, called a blastomere, from a younger, eight-celled embryo to perform genetic testing — to tell, for instance, whether some embryos will have a disease like cystic fibrosis. This testing doesn’t destroy the embryo, so women can choose to have only healthy ones implanted. According to one report, more than 1,000 healthy children have been born after blastomere testing. The questions are whether enough stem cells could be culled from a single blastomere to be worthwhile, and which embryos would be used.
  • Develop stem cells derived from specially engineered tissue. One such technique is called “altered nuclear transfer,” essentially cloning in a way that grows only tissue, not an actual embryo. This process hasn’t been attempted yet.
  • Turning back the clock on older cells so they again become “pluripotent,” the scientific term for the ability to turn into any tissue. Scientists already are trying to do this to some degree through “adult stem cell” research, such as turning blood-making cells into cells that produce liver or muscle tissues. It’s not clear whether older cells can be returned to an embryonic state.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments