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Stem Cell Research Focus of Joint Senate Committee Hearing

On January 19, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee and the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies held a joint hearing on potential advances in stem cell research. They also discussed a bill (S. 5) that would allow the Department of Health and Human Services to use federal funding to conduct and support human embryonic stem cell research. An identical bill (H.R. 3) was approved by the House last week (see The Source, 1/12/07).

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), chair of the HELP Committee, said, “Joint committee hearings are reserved for issues of special importance and few issues are more important than bringing new hope to millions of patients in need. Today’s hearing is about hope. Hope is what stem cell research brings to millions of Americans who seek cures for cancer, diabetes, spinal cord injury and many other serious conditions…But today’s hearing is not just a celebration of research it is a call for change. The search for new cures has been severely limited by the restrictions that President Bush imposed on stem cell research six years ago, when he limited the use of federal funds to the inadequate number of cell lines existing at the time. Last year, President Bush vetoed bipartisan legislation to end those restrictions and offer the hope of fuller, longer lives to million of our citizens.” Sen. Kennedy concluded his remarks by saying, “The time has come for the Congress and the President to join together to unchain the creative energies of American’s scientists and allow them to pursue the promise of stem cell research.”

“Throughout the history of our nation, generations of American scientists have looked for ways to improve the human condition and address the problem of disease and the afflictions of old age,” said Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), ranking member of the HELP Committee. He continued, “As they conducted their research, each scientist’s work built on the discoveries that proceeded it…From time to time, however, there is a breakthrough or possible breakthrough in medical science that has the potential to revolutionize not only our ability to diagnose or treat an affliction but our basic understanding of how the human body operates…Such a possible breakthrough is stem cell research…In discussing stem cells today, we are not making a judgment about the science itself. Rather, we are considering what science should be supported by federal taxpayer dollars. We are considering the appropriate political oversight and public fiscal support of the work of those key scientists in manipulating and possibly even destroying the basic building blocks of human life…If we truly trust science, then we should give science a chance to solve this dilemma before we reach the issue of public funding of embryonic stem cell research.”

Dr. Story Landis, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health, said, “To realize the potential of stem cell-based therapies for pervasive and debilitating disease, scientists must learn to reliably manipulate stem cells so that they possess the necessary characteristics for differentiation, transplantation, and engraftment.” Dr. Landis described several potential uses of stem cells and the state of current clinical research, including using cancer stem cell lines to screen potential anti-tumor drugs, deriving dopamine-producing nerve cells as a potential therapy for Parkinson’s disease, and replacing the myelin (sheath around nerve cell fibers) to treat Lou Gehrig’s disease. She told the committee members that “only further research will overcome the technical hurdles between the potential of stem cells and the realization of these uses.”

Dr. George Daley, an associate professor at the Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital, discussed his clinical work treating children with leukemia and lymphoma. His laboratory studies the formation of blood cells from embryonic stem cells to try to overcome the shortcomings of current treatment options. He told the committee that “ES [embryonic stem] cells remain the most versatile of all stem cells. ES are the gold standard…They are unique precisely because they come from the earliest human embryos before implantation into the womb, before even the most rudimentary human form has begun to take shape.” He said the claims of opponents that embryonic stem cell research had never cured anyone were “patently unfair” because human stem cells have only been around for nine years and “even now cannot be considered routinely available to scientists in the United States. Detractors of ES cells are naïve in trivializing the contributions that ES cells have made to biomedical research.” In concluding his remarks, Dr. Daley said, “Medical science does not advance fastest by cutting off fruitful avenues of research that the overwhelming majority of scientists and leading scientific societies believe are vital. We must promote embryonic and adult stem cell research with equal vigor.”

“To see me sitting here, you’d think I’m just a normal American teenager, and in most ways I am,” said Lauren Stanford, a 15-year-old from Plymouth, Massachusetts. “But inside me,” she continued, “a battle has been raging for ten years now. Because, just at my sixth birthday, I was diagnosed with Type I diabetes.” Ms. Stanford explained: “In the past 10 years, diabetes has sent me to the hospital 14 times, twice to intensive care. It has pricked my fingertips over 30,000 times. It has injected needles in me tens of thousands of times…Diabetes has indeed ruled every minute of my life. Every two months, doctors peer deep into my eyes, waiting for the time when it’s begun to break down my eyesight. They poke at my feet and hands to see if it’s robbed me of circulation yet…I cannot imagine what it’s like to have one, just one day, when I was not sick.” She urged them to expand funding for stem cell research “not just because I want to know first hand what a healthy day feels like, but because scientists believe they can make real advances in the search for a cure for diabetes, and for other diseases as well.”

Dr. John Wagner, a professor of pediatric hematology/oncology at the University of Minnesota, urged support for all forms of stem cell research, saying, “While I unequivocally support embryonic stem cell research, it must also be clear that adult stem cells have an important place in medicine as well. While adult stem cells do not replace the need for ES cells, they likely complement it.” He detailed some of the recent accomplishments in using non-embryonic stem cells to treat diseases, including leukemia and lymphoma, chronic heart disease, acute brain injury, and lung injury. He cautioned that progress on research can be slow: “It is unrealistic to expect that there will be home runs. It may take several generations of studies to make a new therapy work. As an example, cord blood used to treat leukemia and lymphoma took years before it reached its current success. In 1990, I performed the first cord blood transplant in the world for a child with leukemia. While this child unfortunately died of his underlying disease, scientifically it was a success thereby giving us reasons to push forward.” He answered the question posed by the hearing can Congress help fulfill the promise of stem cell research by answering, “absolutely…There are patients in this room today and parents of children who have passed away looking for a chance to see this hope move into reality. The results are extraordinary; we have to make it happen now on their behalf. For them, the stakes are unimaginable.”

During questions, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) asked Dr. Daley if the lack of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research has “retarded the discovery process?” Dr. Daley said that it was difficult to gauge what had been lost but that he personally had experienced “countless hours of delay” because of restrictive funding requirements. His lab receives federal funding and private funding; as such, it is required to maintain two separate spheres with two sets of separate equipment. He said the accounting measures used to track “every pipette, every petri dish” resulted in wasted working hours.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) asked Dr. Daley if they knew of any potential advances in stem cell research that didn’t involve destroying viable human embryos. Dr. Daley said that some stem cells could be derived from embryos that would never be used in fertility treatment and would never be frozen embryos that were of low quality and otherwise discarded. However, he said, this method resulted in significant delays compared to using frozen embryos. Dr. Daley also was concerned that the poor quality embryos could harbor hidden genetic defects.

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