Many researchers want government approval to extract stem-cells from cloned human embryos, and then learn to grow them into tissue that might cure disease. But many others object because that procedure would mean destroying the embryos, and, they say, that means destroying life. The U.S. Senate is expected to take up this spring a bill the House passed last year that would ban all human cloning — to reproduce a person or to try to cure disease. The president’s new Council on Bio-ethics is also considering the morality of cloning. But while the ethical debate continues here, research is moving ahead overseas, where there are fewer restrictions and moral objections.
BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: Now, our “Cover Story” on human stem-cell research.
Many researchers want government approval to extract stem-cells from cloned human embryos, and then learn to grow them into tissue that might cure disease. But many others object because that procedure would mean destroying the embryos, and, they say, that means destroying life.
The U.S. Senate is expected to take up this spring a bill the House passed last year that would ban all human cloning — to reproduce a person or to try to cure disease. The president’s new Council on Bio-ethics is also considering the morality of cloning. But while the ethical debate continues here, research is moving ahead overseas, where there are fewer restrictions and moral objections. Fred de Sam Lazaro begins his report with a remarkable eye operation in India.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: A year ago, Abishek Sharma was almost completely blind due to a degenerative corneal disease mostly found in the tropics. Surgeon Virender Sangwan decided the last hope lay in a stem-cell transplant — a pioneering experiment that’s so far been tried on three dozen patients in the south Indian city of Hyderabad.
Doctors at the L. V. Prasad Institute cultured stem-cells taken from Sharma’s parents to lessen the chance of rejection. These were then sutured on his damaged eyes. Three months later, Dr. Sangwan says the stem-cell graft seems to be taking.
(to Dr. Sangwan): Is he out of the woods yet?
Dr. VIRENDER SANGWAN (Surgeon, L. V. Prasad Institute): He’s not really out of the woods, but we have to be on watch and he has to be on treatment to prevent rejection.
ABISHEK SHARMA (Patient): Dr. Sangwan is really God for me, he make me to see. Now I can see, I can read, I can ride my bike. I have come back to my normal life.
DE SAM LAZARO: Sharma’s progress, however tentative, is an early indicator of the immense medical promise of stem-cells. These are biology’s basic starting point from which grow the body’s various organs and tissues. The problem — the ethical dilemma — is that the most promising, versatile stem-cells are not the adult cells used in Sharma’s case, but those found in embryos up to 14 days old. These early embryonic stem-cells have the potential to develop into any of the 200-plus different types of cells in the body. However, embryos don’t survive after the stem-cells are extracted. And opponents, including the Catholic Church, say destroying embryos — human life in their view — is morally unacceptable.
President Bush struck a compromise last August, when he authorized restricted federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: More than 60 genetically diverse stem-cell lines already exist. They were created from embryos that have already been destroyed, and they have the ability to regenerate themselves indefinitely, creating on-going opportunities for research. I have concluded that we should allow federal funds to be used for research on these existing stem-cell lines, where the life-and-death decision has already been made.
DE SAM LAZARO: The president approved research funds for 64 stem-cell lines from across the globe. Ten are in India, seven at the Bombay-based Reliance Life Sciences, a private lab headed by Dr. Firuza Parikh.
Dr. FIRUZA PARIKH (Reliance Life Sciences): Our immediate goals are for peer review, for establishing efficient collaboration and for putting India on the global scenario of biotech, especially in this area of stem-cell research.
DE SAM LAZARO: The seven stem-cell lines at Reliance are in a delicate early phase, not fully cultured into self-sustaining colonies. Parikh plans to develop additional lines and says she doesn’t need U.S. government funds to do so. Her lab is owned by a multi-billion-dollar Indian conglomerate.
Dr. PARIKH: At this point in time what we are looking for, at least for the next three or four years, is just pure research. We are not looking at numbers that are generated commercially. Of course in the long run, when this research fits into hospitals and goes onto the patients, we would certainly look at revenue.
DE SAM LAZARO: Back in the U.S., there’s concern among some that the Bush decision does not provide sufficient stem-cell lines for research and will handicap American scientists — that it will slow the development of therapies and give other countries a competitive advantage. There also are fears of a brain drain of top scientists like diabetes expert Roger Pedersen. Last year he left the University of California to pursue embryonic stem-cell research at Cambridge University. Cambridge’s reputation was a big lure, but so was Britain’s research climate.
Professor ROGER PEDERSEN (Cambridge University): In general the public supports the kind of research that we’re doing, and that takes the form of financial support, long term financial support. So that the opportunities of actually achieving our goals are very much enhanced by this kind of tangible support for embryonic stem-cell research.
DE SAM LAZARO: In the United States, for example, the idea of cloning has been met with widespread resistance. Britain, on the other hand, doesn’t allow reproductive cloning, but it has approved the idea of cloning for therapy. The embryonic clone of a patient, for example, could serve as a custom made source of stem-cells, cells which would not be rejected. The United Kingdom, home of Louise Brown, the world’s first in-vitro baby, and Dolly, the first cloned mammal, seems more accepting of new reproductive technology, Pedersen says, but it also polices it strictly.
Professor PEDERSEN: There’s no room for cowboys in the UK. The regulatory process is highly prescribed and the penalties for violations are imprisonment. So there is really just a narrow path, to follow and I think it’s a very reasonable condition because it ensures that patients are protected and yet allows the research to move forward.
DE SAM LAZARO: In India, the concern is that research will move forward without adequate protections. The government is only now drawing up guidelines for stem-cell research. And laws have not always prevented abuses here. For example, ultrasounds are routinely used to detect female fetuses. These are then aborted in a society that favors boys. Also, in a land of desperate poverty, many sell their kidneys to transplant centers.
Some critics in India say it should focus on basic needs, like clean water and adequate nutrition. But others say there’s room for new technologies to tackle both indigenous diseases and those more commonly found in developed countries. Dr. V.K. Vinayak works for the government agency that regulates biotechnology.
Dr. V.K. VINAYAK (Government of India): We have lifestyle-related disorders like cardiac disease and diabetes. The age expectancy is going up, it’s more than 60 years. So, I see very great potential for stem-cells.
DE SAM LAZARO: And you’re saying that in India it can be done in an ethically sound environment?
Dr. VINAYAK: I’m sure, I’m sure.
DE SAM LAZARO: No human cloning?
Dr. VINAYAK: No human cloning.
DE SAM LAZARO: No sale of embryos?
Dr. VINAYAK: No sale of embryos, right.
DE SAM LAZARO: Every research project has to get the government’s approval?
Dr. VINAYAK: Right. That’s true.
DE SAM LAZARO: In Bombay, Dr. Parikh insists all the embryos she uses to create stem-cell lines are voluntarily donated, as they are in the United States. Unlike American colleagues, however, Indian scientists don’t have to worry about any larger societal debate over when human life begins. Still, Dr. Parikh says the Bush decision is a good start.
Dr. PARIKH: I think it is a limited scope but at least it has set the ball rolling. At least this is a way scientists will have a healthy dialogue, there will be peer review. There will be an ability to evaluate these lines. And I think there on perhaps, certain decisions may change.
DE SAM LAZARO: Indeed, further down the road, if stem-cell research begins to yield tangible results, ethicists like Mark Yarborough say the pressure in the U.S. to change its position will get only stronger.
Professor MARK YARBOROUGH (University of Colorado): As we age, and Parkinson’s becomes more prevalent in our generation, as Alzheimer’s becomes more prevalent, if we come to believe there are effective therapies out there, I think we’re going to become very persistent in demanding access to those, just like we’ve demanded access to everything else in our society.
DE SAM LAZARO: Stem cell therapy is still well in its infancy. But Indian scientists say global collaborations will speed up the research. How much the U.S. participates remains to be seen. The wrenching debate over embryonic stem-cells and therapeutic cloning will likely continue for years.