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Focus: The stem cell debate
By Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
June 29, 2001
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Patient groups, right-to-life advocates and researchers at the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic are anxiously waiting for a decision by President Bush regarding the public funding of embryonic stem cell research. The controversial procedure has been hailed by scientists as a way of curing diseases like diabetes and Parkinson's. Opponents say the procedure is immoral and unethical because scientists need to destroy a fertilized egg to isolate the precious cells. They say a similar procedure taking similar cells from adults will be just as useful.

Colin McQuillan was diagnosed with Parkinson's two years ago. He hopes President Bush will support public funding for research into embryonic stem cells. Learn more about the debate in this RealAudio slideshow.
THE ARGUMENT OVER EMBRYONIC STEM CELLS comes down to eight microscopic cells. For some ethicists and opponents of legal abortion, those eight cells come from a fertilized egg - a human life - and should be untouchable. For some scientists and patient advocates, those cells offer potential cures for a variety of diseases.

"When you're diagnosed with Parkinson's, it pretty much throws you for a loop, you feel like you've been given a death sentence because Parkinson's is a progressive disease of the brain," says Colin McQuillan, a member of the Parkinson's Association of Minnesota, who was diagnosed with the illness two years ago and shows few signs of the disease.

During our discussion, his hands slightly tremor only once, when he lifts them to adjust his glasses. McQuillan is like thousands of others with Parkinson's and other diseases, who hope President Bush will support public funding for research into embryonic stem cells.

"This is really about research and people who don't have any hope right now and there's a very exciting thing around the corner that may lead to some brilliant discoveries," he says.

Scientists believe stem cells have the power to become any tissue or cell in the human body. So if researchers can figure out a way to coax a stem cell into producing dopamine, a chemical that allows people to move normally and smoothly, it may one day help cure Parkinson's.

But those discoveries may be put on hold if President Bush decides to stop an executive order by former President Clinton that would use public funds on the research. Bush has put a hold on the research while his administration studies an issue that pits science and technology versus religion and morality.

This animation depicts how embryonic stem cells are derived and cultured and how they may be used in the future for therapeutic purposes. See the presentation.
In downtown Rochester, science and religion mix on a daily basis. Thousands of patients walk into the large gray Mayo Clinic building with hopes and prayers that Mayo's physicians can use the latest science to cure an illness that stymied other doctors. One quick glance at the license plates in a nearby parking garage shows cars from 15 different states.

Mayo's director of the Blood and Marrow Program, Dr. Mark Litzo is among the surgeons who have used stem cells from bone marrow to treat different types of leukemia and cancer. He says the latest research has shown that embryonic stem cells may show even greater promise for other single cell diseases like Parkinson's, diabetes and Alzheimer's.

"Embryonic stem cells have a greater potential to naturally produce different cells," he says. "As one gets older, we believe the cells become more committed to certain functions and have less ability and cannot be directed potentially in greater directions, but even that is open."

It's open because researchers are finding so-called "adult stem cells" in the blood, bone marrow and fat of humans. Many believe these cells can develop into different tissues and organs when coaxed, like embryonic stem cells.

And that's prompted others at Mayo to question any research on embryos. Dr. Chris Hook is a hematologist and medical ethicist at Mayo. While Hook and others at the clinic are on an advisory panel that's still studying the ethics of embryonic stem cell research, Hook is clear in his own views - the government should not fund research on embryos, because it takes human life.

Paul Wojda, a theology professor at the University of St. Thomas, who also serves on Archbishop Harry Flynn's bioethics committee, says the Catholic Church will never support any research that harms a human embryo. And while he says the issue has been given a lot of attention because of the promise of the research, he says it heightens the debate over abortion.
"You and I, all were at that phase at some point in our life and the fact that it is very small, it's microscopic it doesn't have any distinct visual features at this point doesn't make it any less of a human being," Hooks says.

He and others against public funding say if the same cures can be found using adult stem cells, it's useless to destroy an embryo to reach the same goal. But some scientists who spend their lives doing research on adult stem cells say it's not that easy.

At the University of Minnesota, scientists and faculty are betting that both embryonic and adult stem cell research will be the future of potential therapies. The school spent $16 million to create its new Stem Cell Institute after other institutions tried to hire its leading stem cell researcher.

Catherine Verfaillie is one of the few stem cell scientists who would benefit from a decision to ban public funding on embryonic stem cells since she's one of the leading researchers of adult stem cells.

While trying to find a way to make bone and cartilage, Verfaillie discovered cells found in bone marrow could become muscle, liver and heart cells.

"If you look at these culture dishes, you can actually see them beat and you have some beat slow and some beat fast as if they mimic the different parts of the heart," she pointed out on a recent tour.

Even though Verfaillie is a leading research in adult stem cells, she steadfastly believes the government should also fund research on embryonic research. She says further research needs to be done to see if one type of stem cell line is better.

"We don't really know yet that the adult stem cells can make everything. We know that we can make quite a bit but we don't know if they can make everything so this longevity is one the really major questions that remain. And I think really people who work with adult stem cells will the same thing. It's way too early to cry victory," according to Verfaillie.

Verfaillie says she was raised in a devout Catholic family so she understands the moral implications of doing research on the embryos. But she says the methods put in place by the Clinton administration should steer clear of any controversy. She says many of the cell lines would come from in vitro clinics that would have discarded the unwanted embryos anyway. Under Clinton's plan, the government would fund the research but would not fund the isolation of the cells from the fertilized egg. That would have to be done by a private company.

Verfaillie says she and other researchers at the U of M will consider raising private money for an outside research center if Bush decides to ban public funding. She says that will allow researchers to compare adult stem cells in the academic setting with embryonic stem cells worked on in a private lab.

That worries many who believe that science and technology are dipping into questionable areas without thinking about what they're doing.

On July 10, 2001, Virginia scientists became the first researchers to create human embryos in the lab for the sole purpose of harvesting their stem cells. Researchers hope to use human stem cells to develop replacement tissue for people who suffer from a wide variety of serious, debilitating diseases. But is that ethical? MPR's Midday discussed the issue on July 11, 2001. Listen online.
"It certainly appears that at least some scientists aren't interested in the moral question," says Paul Wojda, a theology professor at the University of St. Thomas, who also serves on Archbishop Harry Flynn's bioethics committee. He says the Catholic Church will never support any research that harms a human embryo. And while he says the issue has been given a lot of attention because of the promise of the research, he says it heightens the debate over abortion.

"This is the issue that won't go away. And what we're seeing is that the day of reckoning is coming closer in which we're gonna be forced to figure out how to reconcile abortion law politics with biological research law and policy," Wojda says.

Wojda says President Bush has to decide which constituency he wants to offend. His administration includes Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who supported embryonic stem cell research as governor of Wisconsin. Thompson has said he hopes to find some sort of compromise on the issue.

Tom Scheck covers health issues for Minnesota Public Radio. Reach him/her via e-mail at

For More Information:
Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics
Stem Cells Institute (U of M)
Universal U: Verfaillie interview