President Barack Obama issued an executive order last Monday that will significantly increase the amount of federal funds given to embryonic stem cell researchers.
The order overturns a restriction on such research set by President George W. Bush in 2001, which limited funds to 21 pre-existing embryonic stem cell lines.
This restriction forced many scientists to use different lab equipment for privately-funded and government-funded research, which caused confusion and reduced collaboration among scientists.
Under the new rules, however, researchers will be able to use public funds to research hundreds of new stem cell lines.
Scientists believe this move will accelerate their understanding of basic biology, cell replacement therapy, drug testing and development and disease modeling, which may lead to better treatments – or even cures – for such conditions as diabetes, paralysis, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s.
The order will also bring this research under the oversight of the National Institute of Health, the primary federal agency for conducting and supporting medical research.
According to Paul Lauritzen, John Carroll University’s director of the applied ethics program, the NIH will establish a much-needed element of accountability in the industry.
“I support federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research in part because such funding will provide some oversight. Right now, such research is conducted mostly by private companies with no real oversight. As one commentator put it, the current situation is like the Wild West – it’s lawless and unpredictable,” said Lauritzen, whose research in stem cells has received international recognition.
In addition to an increase in public funding, the industry may also experience an influx of private funds. Under the old rules, investors were hesitant to invest in embryonic stem cell research companies, fearing that federal regulations would tighten even further in the future.
Additional public and private funding will help create jobs. The new policy, however, faces a moral dilemma.
According to the NIH Web site, “embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos that develop from eggs that have been fertilized in vitro … and then donated for research purposes … They are not derived from eggs fertilized in a woman’s body.”
While an embryonic stem cell itself is not a human life, the Catholic Church considers embryonic stem cell research immoral.
As explained by Lauritzen, “When you remove the stem cells, you destroy the whole, which is considered a human life. Thus, embryonic stem cell research is wrong, because it requires the destruction of the whole embryo, whichis considered a person.”
Many proponents of this research defend it by arguing that most of the embryonic stem cells would otherwise end up discarded.
However, as Lauritzen said, “Even though the embryos in IVF [in vitro fertilization] clinics are frozen, they are considered human life by the Catholic Church. It was wrong to create the embryos through IVF, it was wrong to freeze them, and it would be wrong to thaw them with the intent to destroy them in order to derive stem cells.”
As a result, the new policy has been met with strong opposition, particularly from members of the religious community and the Republican Party. However, Lauritzen said even policies under Bush failed to meet Catholic guidelines.
“The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was opposed to President Bush’s policy. The policy did not allow federal funds to be used to destroy embryos, but it did allow funding of research on stem cells that had already been destroyed before the policy was announced. It also allowed research in the private sphere to continue,” he said.
Despite the Catholic Church’s hard line against embryonic stem cell research, there are potential alternatives, such as research on adult stem cells and induced pluripotent cells, which are morally acceptable and offer similar medical advantages as embryonic stem cells.
“The Catholic Church supports adult stem cell research and it would support research that began with adult stem cells and somehow manages to coax them back to an embryonic-like state. It is appearing more and more likely that much of the promise of embryonic stem cell research may be available without destroying early embryos,” said Lauritzen.
However, while research on adult and pluripotent cells is encouraging, such cells currently lack all of the medical possibilities that embryonic stem cells offer.
Furthermore, as Lauritzen said, “What we are currently able to do with adult stem cells probably would not have been possible had we not had the experience of working with embryonic stem cells. So this research builds on research that is considered wrong.”