Eighty U.S. Nobel laureates have signed a letter to President Bush urging him not to block the flow of federal grants for research on human embryo cells, The Washington Post reported last Thursday.

The letter is one effort to influence the Bush administration’s decision on embryonic stem cell research. The National Institute of Health set March 15 as a deadline for the first round of stem cell research grants, according to the Post.
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Right to Life Committee have criticized the letter and opposed the idea of funding this research. They called it unethical because human embryos must be destroyed to retrieve the stem cells.
Researchers take the cells, which give rise to all other cells in the human body, from human embryos slated for destruction at fertility clinics. Diseases under investigation include diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Researchers hope to develop a revolutionary method of repopulating diseased organs with new cells.
“Nobody ever said these Nobel prizes are for ethics,” Richard Doerflinger, of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Post.
“While we recognize the legitimate ethical issues raised by this research, it is important to understand that the cells being used in this research were destined to be discarded in any case,” read the Nobel laureates’ letter. “It would be tragic to waste this opportunity to pursue the work that could potentially alleviate human suffering.”
“Just as war is too important to be left only to generals, the killing of human beings in medical research is an issue too important to be left only to scientists, even Nobel laureates,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Commission.
President George W. Bush announced earlier this year that he believed embryos are protected by the Declaration of Independence, moving the United States one step closer to a ban on stem cell research using embryos.
The stem cell debate began when the Clinton administration determined the research on embryo cells was not prohibited by a congressional ban on embryo-destroying research. While federal researchers could not themselves destroy embryos to retrieve stem cells, they could conduct experiments on cells taken from embryos destroyed by privately funded researchers.
“President Bush has a difficult decision to make,” wrote Glenn McGee, professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, in his column for the MSNBC Web site. “[Bush’s] base constituency would love to see Roe v. Wade reversed, and is geared up to fight stem cell research.”
The U.S. government is losing the “biological research war” to the government of Great Britain, which has gone a step further in supporting the stem cell research, said McGee. The House of Lords passed a law this year to allow the creation of embryonic clones for stem cell research and demanded that a special commission look at the ethics of all stem cell research on an ongoing basis.
Meanwhile, the possibility of producing stem cells without the need to destroy human embryos was announced last Friday in a press release by PPL Therapeutics Inc., a Scottish medical research company with a subsidiary in Blacksburg, Va.
The findings resulted from experiments on cattle cells funded by the U.S. government under its Advanced Technology Program.
“The method we are developing as a source of stem cells is working, and I believe it will be equally applicable to humans,” said Ron James, PPL’s managing director.
Alex Smirnov is BCE’s research associate.

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