Spinal Confusion

...an attempt to clarify confusing and innacurate information in science articles

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Bill Frist's Floor Speech on Stem Cells. Politics or Not?

PBS is streaming Frist's Speech (RealAudio) on their Online NewsHour Stem Cell page. Some excerpts from the speech:

Right now, though, let me say this: I believe today -- as I believed and stated in 2001, prior to the establishment of current policy -- that the federal government should fund embryonic stem cell research. And as I said four years ago, we should federally fund research only on embryonic stem cells derived from blastocysts leftover from fertility therapy, which will not be implanted or adopted but instead are otherwise destined by the parents with absolute certainty to be discarded and destroyed.

Let me read to you my 5th principle as I presented it on this floor four years ago:

No. 5. Provide funding for embryonic stem cell research only from blastocysts that would otherwise be discarded. We need to allow Federal funding for research using only those embryonic stem cells derived from blastocysts that are left over after in vitro fertilization and would otherwise be discarded (Cong. Rec. 18 July 2001: S7847 [ed: PDF]).

I made it clear at the time, and do so again today, that such funding should only be provided within a system of comprehensive ethical oversight. Federally funded embryonic research should be allowed only with transparent and fully informed consent of the parents. And that consent should be granted under a careful and thorough federal regulatory system, which considers both science and ethics. Such a comprehensive ethical system, I believe, is absolutely essential. Only with strict safeguards, public accountability, and complete transparency will we ensure that this new, evolving research unfolds within accepted ethical bounds.
In a prior post, I stated that I believed Frist's recent announcement is "purely political." Given the full-text of his 2001 statements on stem cell research, do I still believe this?

Well, let's take a look at his rather persuasive reasoning for why he now feels "It’s time for a modified policy."

When the President announced his policy, it was widely believed that 78 embryonic stem cell lines would be available for federal funding. That has proven not to be the case. Today only 22 lines are eligible. Moreover, those lines unexpectedly after several generations are starting to become less stable and less replicative than initially thought (they are acquiring and losing chromosomes, losing the normal karyotype, and potentially losing growth control). They also were grown on mouse feeder cells, which we have learned since, will likely limit their future potential for clinical therapy in humans (e.g., potential of viral contamination).
To address the first point, at a committee hearing on September 5, 2001 (PDF), NIH Secretary Tommy Thompson said that there were only 24 or 25 fully developed cell lines available at the time for funding. While President Bush had stated that over 60 cell lines were available for funding, Secretary Thompson suggested that the remaining cell lines would be available for research purposes within eight or nine months (ie, by June 2002). This turned out to not be true.

Frist's second and third concerns about the existing stem cell lines were also raised in the September 2001 meeting.

Frist also made a reference to "promising research not even imagined four years ago" in his recent speech, such as reprogramming an adult stem cell to become more pluripotent. Four years ago, Frist made reference to "recent" research suggesting "adult stem cells may have more plastic properties than previously believed." (page S7848)

Based on the evidence presented, I do still believe that Senator Frist's statements are purely political.

With that said, there's no reason to cry over spilt milk. Instead, let's use this as a history lesson.

What did we learn? Unnecessary debates prolong cure research, which prolongs suffering. If we can avoid debates in the future, let's do so. Supporting dedifferentiation research avoids the debate—no embryos created, none destroyed—so let's support it. :)