Senate Stem Cell Sell (September 2010)

October 21, 2010 • Posted in Blog

The Stem Cell debate has recently taken some unexpected twists and turns.  I have watched and re-watched several portions of the webcast of a Labor-HHS Senate Subcommittee hearing on stem cells this month, because I wanted to make sure I understood correctly what was said.  Reflections on that hearing conclude this article; please read them.  You will probably be surprised.  First, though, it will be helpful to remember how we got to this place.  Here’s a brief synopsis:

1981 — Scientists derive embryonic stem cells from mouse embryos

1998 — Human embryonic stem cells are grown in the laboratory

2001 — President George W. Bush approves limited federal funding for human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research — for the first time

2007 — President Bush issues an Executive Order, which established these policies*:
(a) the purposes of this order are (i) to direct the Department of Health
and Human Services, including the National Institutes of Health, to intensify
peer reviewed research that may result in improved understanding of or
treatments for diseases and other adverse health conditions, and (ii) to promote the derivation of human pluripotent stem cell lines from a variety of alternative sources while clearly meeting the standard set forth in section 1(a) of this order;
(b) it is critical to establish moral and ethical boundaries to allow the
Nation to move forward vigorously with medical research, while also maintaining
the highest ethical standards and respecting human life and human
(c) the destruction of nascent life for research violates the principle that
no life should be used as a mere means for achieving the medical benefit
of another;
(d) human embryos and fetuses, as living members of the human species,
are not raw materials to be exploited or commodities to be bought and
sold; and
(e) the Federal Government has a duty to exercise responsible stewardship
of taxpayer funds, both supporting important medical research and respecting
ethical and moral boundaries.

March, 2009 — President Barack Obama issues an Executive Order revoking the 2001 Presidential Statement and 2007 Executive Order of President Bush.  It stated (in part)**:
Sec. 2. Research. The Secretary of Health and Human Services (Secretary),
through the Director of NIH, may support and conduct responsible, scientifically
worthy human stem cell research, including human embryonic stem
cell research, to the extent permitted by law.

August 23, 2010 — U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth issues a temporary injunction against the Obama policy, on the basis that it violates the Dickey-Wicker Amendment.

September 9, 2010 — This temporary injunction is lifted (for now)

September 16, 2010 —  Senate Subcommittee Hearing on stem cells (#21)
To convince the public and the legislators of the need for free-flowing federal funding, several luminaries testified before a Senate subcommittee, chaired by Senator Tom Harkin.   Before the proceedings, Senator Roger Wicker appeared before the group, and reiterated the intent and content of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, an Appropriations bill rider that has been in place yearly since 1996.  It prohibits the use of federal funds for
(1) the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes; or
(2) research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero under applicable federal regulations. Balanced Budget Downpayment Act, Pub. L. No. 104-99, § 128, 110 Stat. 26, 34 (1996) ***

Senator Wicker was sent on his way by the Subcommittee Chairman Harkin, and then Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was welcomed to the microphone.  Senator Harkin made it clear that the job at hand was to “stick to the sciences”, avoiding politics and legalities.  Dr. Collins stated that, since 1998, the NIH has spent $500 million for human Embryonic Stem Cell (hESC) research.  He then outlined hopes for embryonic stem cells:
1) to help understand molecular basis of development and disease
2) regenerate and repair tissue
3) screen for new therapeutics

Senator Harkin asked Dr. Collins about the list of uses of adult stem cells beyond blood diseases — such as in a previous Senate subcomittee testimony of Laura Dominguez — quoted by Senator Wicker.  Dr. Collins responded that certain particular applications of adult stem cells were not standardized care yet; “they’re experimental,” he said.  He couldn’t even say that much about embryonic stem cells, however,  admitting that if therapies do arise from hESC, they are “years” away. 

When Dr. Collins spoke of the need for hESCs to screen for new therapeutics, he showed a video of “three hard-working, uncomplaining yellow robots” screening effects of 100,000 drug compounds  in 48 hours.  “Imagine screening hundreds of thousands of candidate drug compounds,” enthused Dr. Collins, indicating a potential use of human embryonic stem cells.  That is one way of looking at it.  Another is this:  is it true that embryos need to be destroyed so the robots’ job is multiplied?  Our future hopes are being fixed on uncomplaining embryos  joined to uncomplaining robots.   There should definitely be a better way forward.

* Federal Register, Vol. 72, No. 120; Friday, June 22, 2007
** Federal Register, Vol. 74, No. 46; Wednesday, March 11, 2009
*** See