Intended for healthcare professionals


US Congress debates stemcell research

BMJ 1999; 318 doi: (Published 23 January 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;318:215
  1. James Ciment
  1. New York

    The controversy surrounding the recent harvesting and culture of human embryonic stem cells—the cells that form within days after fertilisation and transform into all other forms of human cells as a fetus develops—was debated last week by the US Congress.

    The ban on federal funding for research using human embryos should be lifted, argued Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. He was giving evidence to the Senate appropriations committee. President Clinton banned the use of federal funding to create human embryos for research five years ago. Congress later broadened the prohibition to include any research using human embryos.

    “The identification of human embryonic stem cells has been widely acknowledged as being of inestimable value…[as it] holds the promise of allowing the development of techniques for manipulating, growing, and cloning these cells to permit the creation of designer cells and tissues,” Caplan said. This, he added, could aid research into a host of age related diseases, including osteoporosis, stroke, depression, arthritis, Alzheimer's, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and Parkinson's disease. Parkinson's, caused by the death of cells in the brain that produce dopamine, might be cured by the placement of stem cells in the dopamine producing region, researchers in Sweden recently announced.

    Caplan's testimony, together with the spate of recent developments in stem cell research (14November 1998,p 1337), convinced the subcommittee's chair, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, and he announced a bill to partially lift the ban on federal funding. Specter, who pointed out the inconsistency of allowing federal support for research using fetal tissue but not embryos, also noted that President Clinton seems “favourably disposed” to the bill.

    Proponents say that they recognise the moral implications of this kind of research. “As a society,” Caplan noted, “we do not want to see embryos treated as products or mere objects for fear that we will cheapen the value of parenting [and] risk the commercialisation of procreation.” But maintaining a ban on federal funding, noted Daniel Perry, executive director of Alliance for Aging Research, leaves research in the private sector, where there is little federal oversight.

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