Thought I’d revisit my previous post on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research (FFESCR).
When we last left the situation, President Obama had signed an executive order allowing scientists to apply for FFESCR for more than just the 21 lines grandfathered in by President Bush’s 2001 executive order. The NIH had 3 months to rewrite the rules governing FFESCR. That was 9 March 2009.
Two days later, on 11 March 2009, President Obama signed HR 1105, the Omnibus Appropriations Act for the rest of fiscal year 2009. Usually a non-newsworthy event. However, section 509 contains what is known as the Dickey-Wicker amendment – an ammendment that has been in every appropriations bill since FY1997 – which states, in part:
None of the funds made available in this Act may be used for … research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death…
So two days after President Obama opened up FFESCR, he promptly closed FFESCR for the rest of the fiscal year (FY2009 ends 30 September 2009). Oops. That’s development 1.
Development 2 involves some of the commentary on the executive order and subsequent interviews and explanations. Blogger Ed Morrissey of HotAir.com picked up on part of an answer President Obama gave at the 24 March press conference. President Obama mentioned the promise of using FFESCR to “find cures for Parkinson’s or for Alzheimer’s.” Morrissey refuted Obama’s justification with an interview given by Ronald D.G. McKay:
But given the lack of any serious suggestion that stem cells themselves have practical potential to treat Alzheimer’s, the Reagan-inspired tidal wave of enthusiasm stands as an example of how easily a modest line of scientific inquiry can grow in the public mind to mythological proportions.
It is a distortion that some admit is not being aggressively corrected by scientists.
“To start with, people need a fairy tale,” said Ronald D.G. McKay, a stem cell researcher at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “Maybe that’s unfair, but they need a story line that’s relatively simple to understand.”
Morrissey contends that a “fairy tale” is not enough justification to use human embryos for stem cell research.
The author of that interview, Rick Weiss – someone President Obama considered for director of communications and senior policy strategist for the Office of Science and Technology, before John P. Holdren was confirmed for the job – hit back at Morrissey (and the position that human embryos should not be destroyed) today on the Science Policy blog:
Here is what Morrissey and his ilk keep ignoring: Just because injections of stem cells into the brain are not likely to cure Alzheimer’s does not mean the cells are not uniquely able to help scientists find a cure for this devastating disease. …
Imagine, though, being able to watch a neuron undergo its natural development and aging process in a laboratory dish. And imagine being able to compare this process in normal brain cells and in brain cells bearing the subtle molecular differences that scientists have so far found to be characteristic of at least some varieties of Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, you don’t need to imagine this because it is already being done, thanks to embryonic stem cells.
Scientists are using these cells to create normal neurons and abnormal neurons with many of the characteristics of Alzheimer’s. They are using them not only to compare them, but to be able to test various chemical compounds and potential medicines to see which of these compounds might have salutary effects on the ailing neurons. They are using them, in short, to do studies that could never be done in patients and that, in fact, could never be done in laboratory dishes were it not for the newfound ability to grow them from embryonic stem cells.
I’d have to agree with… both of them. Weiss makes a good point that just because we wont get a cure from human embryonic stem cells doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use federal funds to study them. The research he describes out of the UCSD School of Medicine sounds very interesting and will definitely lead to greater understanding of the cause, progression, and perhaps treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.
However, Weiss fails to explain why only human embryonic stem cells (paid for with federal funding) can be used for this purpose. We’ve had the ability to turn skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells for a few years now. Unfortunately, most work in this area requires the use of a viral vector which may leave behind certain genes with the potential to cause cancer. The day before President Obama signed his executive order, ScienceDaily reported that the Whitehead Institute has developed a way to remove those genes from iPS cells. The virus free iPS cells provide another way to use non-embryonic stem cells for research:
After the skin cells were reprogrammed to iPS cells, the researchers introduced the Cre enzyme into the cells, which removed the DNA between the two loxP sites, thereby deleting the reprogramming genes from the cells. The result is a collection of iPS cells with genomes virtually identical to those of the Parkinson’s disease patients from whom original skin cells came.
Removing the reprogramming genes is also important because of those genes’ effect on an iPS cell’s gene expression (a measure of which genes the cell is using and how much it’s using those genes). When the researchers compared the gene expressions of human embryonic stem cells to iPS cells with and without the reprogramming factors, iPS cells without the reprogramming genes had a gene expression closer to human embryonic stem cells than to the same iPS cells that still contained the reprogramming genes. …
After removing the reprogramming genes, the Jaenisch researchers differentiated the cells from the Parkinson’s disease patients into dopamine-producing nerve cells. In Parkinson’s disease patients, these cells in the brain die or become impaired, causing such classic Parkinson’s symptoms as tremors, slowed movement, and balance problems.
If these virus-free iPS cells can be used for the same research as human embryonic stem cells, this raises the question of why we need to probe the ethical boundry of doing research on human embryonic stem cells. Might human embryonic stem cells lead to cures iPS cells cannot – of course (don’t forget, there’s nothing prohibiting privately funded companies from doing this research). But perhaps it would be prudent to leave taxpayer money out of this arena while iPS cells show the potential to do everything human embryonic stem cells can do – without the ethical dillema.