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The Law, the Lord & the Lab - The Legal, Ethical & Scientific Debate About Stem Cell Research

Cells_smallEver since the embryonic stem cell was first isolated a dozen years ago, stem cell research has been at the mercy of shifting political tides, public debate, and legal challenges. The current court battle has put millions of dollars of grant money for stem cell research at risk. On today’s show, we unravel the current legal and ethical debate with the help of bioethicist Laurie Zoloth, and later in the show we’ll talk with Dr. Tim Kamp, a prominent stem cell researcher about when the promise of stem cell research will start becoming a reality.

Listen to this episode.

Segment 1: Stem Cells in the Courtroom
Guest: Dr. Laurie Zoloth, Professor of Medical Humanities & Bioethics and Religion at Northwestern University
, co-editor of "The Human Embryonic Stem Cell Debate: Science, Ethics, and Public Policy."

When University of Wisconsin researcher James Thomson first isolated the human embryonic stem cell in 1998, his accomplishment was met with rapturous attention in the press and in the scientific community. Stem cells have a unique ability to renew themselves indefinitely; and they're pluripotent - they have an almost magical capacity to become any type of cell in the body. Hopes were high that a new era of medical innovation was just around the corner. Ethical concerns about using embryonic stem cells for research, however, has been a dark cloud over the game-changing nature of the discovery. The cells are, essentially, fertilized eggs. The equivalent of a human embryo a few days after conception. Most of the embryos used in research have been left over from in vitro fertilization procedures. Frozen in storage. But isolating stem cells for research requires the destruction of the embryo, and even Dr. Thomson himself has expressed some ethical reservations about the work.

By the time Thomson's innovation celebrated its 10-year anniversary in 2008, ethical concerns had been muted somewhat, as critics turned their attention to a perceived lack of results. Where were the miracle cures? Researchers had made exciting progress with so-called "adult stem cells." Adult stem cells are harder to come by and typically have less flexibility to do the work of cells in other parts of the body (for example trying to get a stem cell found in the liver to act as a heart cell might). But recent efforts to "reprogram" adult stem cells have had promising results and suggest a possible solution to the ethical debate.

But the long dormant political and ethical conflict about embryonic stem cells erupted again this year. It started with a 2009 decision by President Obama to lift a ban on funding new embryonic stem cell lines (the ban had been put in by President Bush in 2001). Just a couple of weeks ago, a federal district court judge issued a temporary injunction against Obama's policy because it came in conflict with the Dicky-Wicker amendment, a 1995 Congressional amendment prohibiting federal money from being used in any research that destroys an embryo. The decision put a halt to funding for dozens of scientific projects. The Director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, warned that the injunction would do serious damage to promising areas of biomedical research and that it "pours sand into the engine of discovery." An emergency request by the Obama administration to lift the injunction was later rejected by the ruling judge. And just last week, a three-member appeals panel temporarily suspended the judge's ruling until it could hear full arguments in the next few weeks. So federal research funding for human embryonic stem cell projects has permission to go ahead - for now. But the legal battle is far from over, leaving researchers who count on federal funding with an uncertain future.   

Segment 2: Stem Cells in the Lab
Guest: Dr. Tim Kamp, Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and head of the University's Kamp Lab

As the legal and ethical debate about embryonic stem cells continues, researchers who count on federal funding are in the uncomfortable position of continuing their work without any certainty that money won't abruptly run out. When a judge's ruling in August forced the NIH to stop funding stem research, 22 projects due to receive yearly checks in September were told that they would have to find other money.