Center for American Progress

Jumping the Gun on Alternative Sources of Stem Cells

Jumping the Gun on Alternative Sources of Stem Cells

NIH’s new plan is overly optimistic about embryonic stem cell alternatives. All stem cells must move forward together to be most effective.

The NIH unveiled its new plan last week for funding research on alternative sources of embryonic stem cells—essentially embryonic stem cells that aren’t derived from embryos. This plan comes under the aegis of the president’s Executive Order 13435, which requires the Department of Health and Human Services to “conduct and support research on the isolation, derivation, production, and testing of stem cells that are capable of producing all or almost all of the cell types of the developing body … but are derived without creating a human embryo … or subjecting to harm a human embryo or fetus.”

This Executive Order does not give the NIH any new funding—it already had the authority to pay for such research if they had any worthwhile proposals—and neither does it provide any more funding for work on stem cell biology. What it does mean is that the White House wants the NIH to try to circuitously achieve what it could be achieving directly if federal funding for embryonic stem cell research were allowed.

The search for new sources of pluripotent stem cells is not a hoax or a dead end. But stem cell research and regenerative medicine would be grossly incomplete without research on stem cells derived from embryos. Non-embryonic pluripotent stem cells should not be alternatives to embryonic stem cells; they should be supplements. This is a crucial point that the administration—along with most embryonic stem cell opponents—fail to grasp.

A more optimistic (and inaccurate) portrait of the president’s executive order is painted by Yuval Levin in the Summer 2007 edition of the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s journal, The New Atlantis. Levin waxes hopefully about the executive order, claiming that it seizes a “middle ground” created by non-embryonic sources of pluripotent stem cells. Levin even tries to make the administration’s position seem like an ideal bipartisan compromise by citing the 1999 report from President Clinton’s National Bioethics Advisory Commission. He praises the report’s preference for “less morally problematic alternatives” to embryonic stem cell research, which according to Levin’s interpretation, would cease to justify the “derivation of stem cells from embryos remaining following infertility treatments.”

Levin displays a misplaced optimism similar to the Bush administration’s by thinking that non-embryonic stem cells will make embryonic stem cells obsolete, and this causes Levin to misinterpret the 1999 report. In the same paragraph as Levin’s citation, the report reads, “The claim that there are alternatives to using stem cells derived from embryos is not, at the present time, supported scientifically. We recognize, however, that this is a matter that must be revisited continually as science advances.”

The science may have advanced, but instead of simply revisiting the matter, embryonic stem cell research opponents have completely jumped the gun. The executive order even took a linguistic jump by renaming the steadily dwindling “Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry” the newly expandable “Human Pluripotent Stem Cell Registry.”

These points betray how embryonic stem cell research opponents such as Levin and President Bush administration misunderstand science. Embryonic stem cells are still the gold standard for pluripotency. In fact, without human embryonic stem cell research, scientists would not even know what the markers of pluripotency are. Recent research done on mice at Cambridge has shown that an understanding of embryonic stem cell development is necessary in order figure out how to make adult stem cells pluripotent. And more research will need to be done on all kinds of pluripotent cells, including embryonic stem cells, in order to understand when they are safe for therapeutic use.

Without further studies of embryonic stem cells, we may not be able to tell the difference between pluripotent cells—which cannot develop into a fetus—and totipotent cells—that can make a fetus. There is uncertainty as to exactly when and how embryonic stem cells lose their totipotency and how totipotency is regenerated by the stem cells that differentiate into reproductive cells. Thus, to avoid the ethical problem of destroying totipotent cells, more research on embryonic cells will likely be necessary.

Stem cell biologists continue to recommend research on all stem cell sources. We should applaud the NIH’s decision to accelerate alternative sources of stem cells by developing new funding opportunities, but this research must move forward hand-in-hand with embryonic stem cell research to be most effective. Unfortunately, the current administration continues to force the NIH to poke around the edges when it could be jumping into the heart of stem cell research.

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