History of Stem Cell Research

History of Stem Cell Research

In November 1998, two research teams led by James A. Thomson of the University of Wisconsin and John D. Gearhart of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine independently announced the isolation of human stem cells. The find was widely recognized as one of great medical and ethical importance. Senate hearings to debate federal funding for research on the newly-discovered cells began the following December.

In the summer of 2000, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the American Heart Association came out in favor of embryonic stem cell research. Over objections from pro-life activists from the National Right to Life Committee, the Clinton administration allowed federal funds for the research. Federal funding was contingent upon researchers agreeing to use only leftover frozen embryos from fertility clinics. Additionally, no financial compensation was allowed for donors because of concerns about engendering a commercial trade in embryos.

The policy changed when George W. Bush became president in January 2001. In his election campaign, Bush had been an outspoken opponent of any research involving the destruction of human embryos. Despite pleas from the American Medical Association and a coalition of eighty Nobel laureates, federal funding for embryonic stem cell research was discontinued. The decision was applauded by a broad alliance of conservative anti-abortion and religious groups.

Churches were split on the issue. Bush's ban was supported by the evangelical Christian organization Focus on the Family, as well as Southern Baptist and Catholic churches. However, the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church both made public statements in support of stem cell research conducted according to ethical guidelines.

Privately-funded embryonic stem cell research remained legal in the United States. Stem cell research and its potential products represent a significant source of revenue to participating institutions, so pharmaceutical companies continued their independent programs. University-based scientists had fewer funding options, and worried that American laboratories would become academic backwaters as new discoveries were made overseas.

President Bush amended his funding ban in 2001, citing the potential of stem cells to cure diseases. Federal funding would become available for stem cell research, but only on sixty existing cell lines. No living or future embryos could be destroyed to obtain new cell lines. Bush's compromise drew fire from both sides of the controversy.

Anti-abortion Christian groups viewed the use of cell lines derived from a destroyed embryo as disrespectful to human life. Some even went so far as to draw parallels between embryonic stem cell research and experiments done in Nazi Germany on condemned prisoners.

The American Cell Therapy Research Foundation, a stem cell advocacy organization, expressed concern about the number and quality of existing cell lines allowed under the revised rule. They asserted that there are only about two dozen legal lines, not sixty, and all have been contaminated by growing in culture with mouse cells. Advocates also point out that cell cultures may be used in drug development, so the lines in use should be representative of all the ethnic groups in the country. The current lines are not ethnically diverse. Infertility clinic patrons, whose surplus embryos were used as the source for most cell lines, are predominantly white.

Since the controversy centered on the destruction of human embryos, scientists began to look for alternative sources of stem cells. In 2001, stem cells were isolated from adipose (fat) tissue. Since then, adult stem cells have been found in many organs of the adult body, and in umbilical cord blood. Efforts are underway to use these cells to replace dopamine-producing nerve cells in the brains of Parkinson's disease patients. Adult stem cells also show promise in stimulating angiogenesis in weakened hearts, and might be useful in producing insulin for diabetics.

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