WASHINGTON, DC—It is time to actively challenge the decision that federally funded stem cell research should be limited to 64 defined precursor cell lines, cancer researchers said here at a special forum on public policy issues surrounding stem cells and cancer research at the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting.
When the decision was announced on August 9, 2001, President Bush and his supporters said that the existing cell lines “could do everything,” noted Irving L. Weissman, MD, the Karel and Avice Beekhuis Professor of Cancer Biology at Stanford University.
“But that is a political argument, it is not a factual statement. There is no scientific basis for that statement.” Dr. Weissman, the first scientist to identify and isolate stem cells in any species, said it is time for researchers and clinicians to take the issue out of the political arena and back into the scientific arena, where it rightly belongs.
Dr. Weissman was joined at the session by Curt I. Civin, MD, the King Fahd Professor in the Department of Pediatric Oncology and Co-Director of the Division of Immunology and Hematopoiesis at Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions; and Darwin J. Prockop, MD, PhD, Professor and Director of the Center for Gene Therapy at Tulane University Health Sciences Center.
When the funding door closed in Washington, Dr. Civin decided to take the stem cell campaign local by asking the Maryland legislature to permit the research. Dr. Civin's experience is a textbook example of why science and politics don't mix.
“I thought this was a pretty vanilla approach,” he said. He thought the administration wanted stem cell research to be handled at the state level with “the states functioning as demonstration labs, so there would be 50 state experiments,” he said.
And in some cases this approach works: California has a bill that permits stem cell research, and it has another bill that bans human reproductive cloning.
That one-two approach is important, said Dr. Civin, because it highlights an Achilles heel of stem cell research: the fear that it will somehow lead to human reproductive cloning.
In Maryland, Dr. Civin didn't connect the dots between cloning and stem cell research and as he tells the story, he was blindsided by this link. The “vanilla” stem cell bill set off a firestorm of furious responses in Annapolis, including “response letters from five members of the Bush advisory committee on stem cell research.”
The opposition, he said, came from people who attached “cosmic issues such as what is life and the whole abortion debate” to what Dr. Civin saw as a simple bill that would open the door for “therapeutic stem cell research.”
The result, he said, was that the Maryland legislature defeated the proposal. But Dr. Civin, who said that he is not only battle scarred but also battle savvy as a result of the defeat, plans to attempt to gain support for the measure in the next legislative session.
Dr. Prockop said that even after several years of gene therapy trials, “stem cells are mysterious…thus to propose a ban on research speaks against science and against consumer interests.”
An Unlikely Voice in Defense of Controversial Research
Yet, Dr. Prockop said there has been virtually no outcry or protest from professional organizations. There is, however, one unexpected exception: the American Medical Association.
While the AMA is regarded by many as a distinctly conservative professional group, it is out ahead of other professional groups on the stem cell issue. Last June, the AMA's Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs (CEJA), the high-court of American medicine and keeper of the Code of Medical Ethics, ruled that it is ethically permissible for physicians to pursue the “science of therapeutic cloning.”
In its opinion CEJA states, “the pluralism of moral visions that underlie this debate must be respected, physicians collectively must continue to be guided by their paramount obligation to the welfare of their patients. In this light, cloning-for-biomedical-research is consistent with medical ethics. An individual physician remains free to decide whether to participate in stem cell research or use its products.”
Although unexpected, the AMA decision was “tremendous,” said Dr. Prockop. Dr. Civin said he hoped it will open the door for other groups of scientists and physicians to “come forward with similar statements.”
Dr. Weissman said the AMA's position is especially laudable because “when the most conservative of all American medical organizations” was faced squarely with the question “are you willing to stop the research,” the AMA came down on the side of science.
In a follow-up interview, Dr. Weissman said that despite the AMA action, other organizations are reluctant to go public with support for stem cell research. “It should be the American Cancer Society or the American Association for Cancer Research that is out in front on this issue,” he said, noting that neither ACS nor AACR has publicly challenged the administration on stem cell research.
Warren Froelich, AACR's Director of Communications, commented that although the Association does not have an official policy about the matter, earlier this year a letter was sent on behalf of AACR in support of legislation introduced by Senator Arlen Spector (R-PA) that would permit therapeutic cloning.