The Scientific Side of the Stem-Cell Debate This week, the Senate will take up legislation passed by the House that would expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. There'll also be discussion of a bill to spend more money on finding ways to make embryonic stem cells without destroying an embryo.
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The Scientific Side of the Stem-Cell Debate

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The Scientific Side of the Stem-Cell Debate

The Scientific Side of the Stem-Cell Debate

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No matter what happens with the vote in the Senate, research on stem-cells in general and embryonic stem-cells in particular continues to expand both here and abroad. Joining us to talk about this burgeoning field is NPR science correspondent Joe Palca. And Joe, remind us, please, why it is that scientists see such tremendous potential in embryonic stem cells.

JOE PALCA: Well, these really are remarkable cells that have potential that no other cell type that's been studied really have. In theory, they can turn into any cell type on the body. I mean, when you think about an embryo, you realize that it has the ability to turn into an entire human being.

These are cells derived from an early embryo called the blastocyst that have the potential to form the different cell types - the blood, the muscles, the brain, the bone - but not the entire human being.

BLOCK: Help us understand one distinction. We heard there in David Welna's piece about an alternative bill, one of the sponsors is Norman Coleman, that would do research on stem cells, allow research on stem cells as long as they're not derived from viable embryos. What's the distinction there?

PALCA: Well, I think the key is that - one important thing is they're trying to find a source of cells that are not derived from embryos at all that have the same kinds of flexibility - this language in the bill, the same kinds of potency that embryonic stem cells have. And so there have been reports that cells that are taken from amniotic fluid or the placenta or even from some adult tissue may have that same ability. There's also some thought that there may be ways of deriving cells from embryos that would be considered non-viable. In other words, they would never grow into a baby if you put them into a woman's uterus. And they may still be valuable for driving these cells out. That's a little more out there, if you will.

BLOCK: Whenever this debate comes up over embryonic stem-cell research, proponents say that the restrictions on funding are slowing the race to find cures for a variety of diseases. We heard much the same...

PALCA: Right.

BLOCK: ...argument apparently being made by the head of NIH in this case.

PALCA: Well, I think the head of NIH cast a little more subtly than the politicians do. The politicians say there's people who are suffering from illnesses in the world and, you know, and we can help them if we fund this kind of research. I think what Doctor Zerhouni was saying when he said that the pace of research has slowed is he's thinking about how biomedical research goes forward writ large.

And that means we learn something new about how the human body works; how diseases originate, how cells change and divide, and why they turn cancerous, or why they become diseased or something like that. And so he's making the point that if the research community is going to have a better understanding of the research process of the illness process, they're going to need more of these cells. I think there's a distinction there because he's not promising a cure, and I think that any scientist will say to you, look, we hope that this research is going to lead to a cure, but, you know, we can't be sure. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't. So it's kind of a different question he's answering.

BLOCK: At the same time that this debate is going on at the federal level, you see a lot of action being taken by the states. California has a $3 billion commitment over the next decade for embryonic stem-cell research. Plans in New York for a $1 billion funding program. If there's this much state money available, how necessary is federal funding?

PALCA: Well, you know, it may actually, in terms of dollars - the dollars that are available may be adequate. I think the problem is that people who look at the research enterprise are concerned that Balkanizing it like this will make it harder for the work to go forward in a concerted, thoughtful way. I mean, if they're doing something in California, they could be repeating it in New York if they're not actually talking together. Whereas if the National Institutes of Health is looking at the research portfolios and saying, oh, we already have one of those, we won't fund another one. Then you don't have wasted effort.

Also collaborations can become more difficult because states have different rules, and different structures, and different ethical guidelines. And so it's a problem. Dollars may in fact be adequate. I don't know.

BLOCK: In the meantime, what's going on in other countries?

PALCA: Well, other countries are going ahead. I think one of the expressions I read was gangbusters. China, for example, has an awful lot of research going on - Singapore, the U.K. There's a lot of countries that still see this as a very exciting field of endeavor and don't have the ethical problems with it that this administration does.

BLOCK: Okay, Joe. Thanks a lot.

PALCA: You're welcome.

BLOCK: NPR's science correspondent, Joe Palca.

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