UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA — Although the decision of whether the federal government should fund human embryonic stem cell research will be made in Washington, D.C., its ramifications will be felt throughout Penn’s laboratories.
To many of these scientists, some of whose research involves the use of animal stem cells, it would be unwise not to make such an investment.
“It’s this pot of gold that should be explored,” Patricia Labosky, professor of cell and developmental biology, said of stem cell research.
Stem cells develop about four days after conception, with their tremendous value arising from the fact that they are capable of multiplying indefinitely, and — as a basic building block for the fetus — can become any of nearly 220 different kinds of cells in the human body.
But tapping into the capabilities of the stem cells, which hold the potential to cure such devastating diseases as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, means destroying embryos that could someday become babies.
This leaves President Bush faced with the question of whether to pay for such research and alienate the conservative Catholic vote and other right-to-life supporters who have strongly supported him in the past, and which are against destroying embryos.
“Life is not so randomly bestowed as to be selectively destroyed,” Catherine Rossi, communications director for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, said in a statement.
However, Arthur Caplan, director of Penn’s Center for Bioethics, said that it would be a “metaphysical mistake” to mistake an embryo as a person.
“I think they are products of human creation, and that they deserve moral consideration, but I would not equate them as people,” Caplan said.
Caplan said that rather than forming embryos for the sole purpose of research, a better solution would be to use frozen embryos from fertility clinics. Because it is common practice in fertility clinics to fertilize more than one egg at a time since only one in five embryos will become a baby, many of these stored embryos would otherwise be destroyed.
“The debate right now has one side yelling `baby killer,’ and the other side saying that people should be able to walk again and come out of their wheelchairs, and neither is quite true,” he continued.
Others advocate for the middle ground of harvesting stem cells from aborted fetuses or from adults, where they can be found in such places as bone marrow. But stem cells from adults, for example, can be difficult to isolate, and their number and potency decrease with age.
“Adult stem cells are just not going to do what embryo cells do, and the only way to get them to do that is trying to trick them into being embryo cells, in which case you’re back to the same problem again,” Caplan said.
At a time when another favored proposal of Bush’s — his energy plan — is also under attack, some feel that a compromise with both sides of the stem cell issue might be the smartest political move.
“There are lines that can be drawn that might work better for him,” Political Science department Chairman Jack Nagel said. “It’s just a question of where you draw the line.”
If Bush decides not to fund such stem cell research, the research would still continue, but in private labs that do not operate under the same level of oversight as do federally-funded labs. And, as exemplified just this week, prominent researchers may begin to migrate to other countries that have a friendlier attitude towards stem cell research.
“Not that private research is not a good thing, but it won’t draw the best and the brightest from around the U.S.,” Pathology professor John Trojanowski said. “And it means that a lot of the information will be held privately.”
Further complicating the matter is that if federal funding is banned, National Institutes of Health guidelines will not permit banned research to occur in the same lab as permitted research.
With the federal government being the largest supporter of medical research in the country — and with Penn ranking second nationally in NIH research grants — performing human embryonic stem cell research would cut off the majority of scientific funding for scientists at Penn and elsewhere.
“You’d have to set up a parallel lab with non-federal funding — you can’t even use the same centrifuge,” Labosky said.
However, even with federal backing, any results of that research are still years away. But Trojanowski, who is also the co-director of the Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research, believed that support for such research would build.
“My experience has been that people who have been hostile to this notion, once they are afflicted with disease, have a dramatic change in attitude,” he said. “It’s no longer a philosophical discussion.”