Science of the Lambs

Buying Dolly the duplicated sheep has brought researchers at the Bay Area's Geron Corp. to the threshold of remarkable frontiers in transplants and cloning. Do we want to follow their lead?

But not long after Congress banned government funding for embryo research, science turned up with new stem cell research, raising a brand-new question: Are stem cells considered embryos? If so, that would extend the federal funding ban on embryo research to stem cell work.

In response to growing research in biotechnology, President Clinton in 1995 created the National Bioethics Advisory Commission. The commission, a panel of ethicists from various backgrounds, is charged with reviewing questions about things like stem cell research and advising the president. By default, the ethics commission has become a kind of clearinghouse for bioethics debate.

Earlier this year, the commission released a preliminary report that signaled it would likely give the thumbs-up to federal funds for stem cell research. A final report may come out of this week's commission meetings. Somewhere along the way, NIH Director Harold Varmus told the ethics commission that he and the Clinton administration believe NIH has the authority to fund stem cell research now, meaning that stem cells don't qualify as embryos under the ban.

(Science fiction movies rarely have included a massive legal debate over the spirit of the law vs. the letter of the law, but that's Hollywood, not Washington.)

In any event, Congress has yet to appropriate any money for the government to underwrite stem cell research. And that's where the big fight may be coming.

On the one hand, researchers will be pushing for federal funding, arguing that it will speed the research. And, they're not alone. More than 30 patient advocacy groups have clocked in on the side of federal funding.

But there are heavy hitters on the other side, like the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. And even, perhaps inadvertently, some scientists.

For instance, long before legal minds inside the administration decided that human stem cells do not have the capacity to develop into a human being, and therefore could not be considered embryos, researchers at the University of Toronto literally created mice from stem cells.

And there's something else lurking in the background. If the United States balks, there are plenty of other countries that might welcome cutting-edge biotechnology companies with open arms.

To scientist Harley, the issue is simple.
"We want to do ethical treatments that are both advantageous and safe, but also morally ethical," he says. He believes it is possible to accomplish all three.

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