Increased pressure on US to support embryonic stem cell research

May 12, 2004

Brussels, 11 May 2004

Former US First Lady Nancy Reagan has joined 100 Nobel laureate scientists and 206 members of the US Congress in criticising the Bush administration for its decision to limit funding for stem cell research.

At an event on 8 May organised by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Mrs Reagan, whose husband, former President Ronald Reagan, is suffering from Alzheimer's said she believed stem cell research 'may provide our scientists with many answers that for so long have been beyond our grasp [...]. I just don't see how we can turn our backs on this.'

The embryonic stem cell debate in the US has, for many years, been one of the thorniest in science and politics.

Scientists believe embryonic stem cells, which can be used to create all other cells and tissues in the body, can repair organs or treat diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. However, to cultivate the self-perpetuating colonies, or lines, of stem cells, the researchers have to destroy human embryos in order to extract stem cells. This process is therefore highly controversial and has drawn strong criticism from religious groups.

As a result, Mr Bush has limited federal funding for research on human embryonic stem cells to colonies created before August 2001. This puts the US in a similar position to the EU, where a de facto moratorium on stem cell research funded under the EU's Framework Programmes is currently in place. This policy to restrict research on moral grounds has been heavily criticised by researchers for impeding science.

Furthermore, new research supports the theory that stem cells from embryos have a greater potential to cure diabetes than stem cells from adults. Indeed, a Harvard cell biologist, Douglas Melton, argues in the latest issue of Nature, that 'only embryonic stem cells can transform themselves into the insulin-producing 'beta cells' which are destroyed or fail in around ten per cent of diabetics. [...] Embryonic stem cells are currently the only type of stem cell that is unquestionably capable of differentiation into beta cells'.

This discovery led 206 members of the US Congress to sign a letter urging the President to finance studies on surplus embryos at in vitro fertilisation clinics, which would otherwise be discarded.

The Bush administration, however, said it has no plans to change its policy. 'The president remains committed to exploring the promise of stem cell research,' stated Trent Duffy, Mr Bush's spokesperson, 'but continues to believe strongly that we should not cross a fundamental moral line by encouraging the destruction of human embryos.'

CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities

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