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Vest Signs Letter, Urges Stem Cell Research Funding

By A.S. Wang


President Charles M. Vest joined over 100 university presidents in signing a letter of petition urging the Bush administration to maintain federal funding for stem cell research.

Similar letters have been sent to President George W. Bush within the last month from 95 members of the House of Representatives, as well as from 80 Nobel laureates.

“Before signing the letter ... I consulted with several biologists and research leaders,” Vest said. “MIT currently does no human stem cell research., but we do some animal stem cell research, and those faculty foresee great potential benefit to human health.”

Bush may revoke federal funding

Stem cell research, which first came into the public eye in 1998, is hailed by proponents as a promising area of biomedical research because of its broad range of applications in medical treatments, as well as its potential contributions to biological understanding. However, it is now also facing the scrutiny of government regulations and ethical debate.

In 2000, the Clinton administration pledged strong support for this research by approving a set of guidelines for stem-cell work, and appropriated federal funds for human embryonic stem-cell research for the first time. Opponents to this funding, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Sen. John S. McCain (R-Ariz), have raised arguments against it because embryonic stem cells are obtained by destroying human embryos.

The current policy favoring stem cell research may be reversed if President Bush signs an executive order blocking federal funds from being used for stem cell research. Bush has already expressed his opposition to the use of federal funds to study stem cells derived from human embryos. “I do not support research from aborted fetuses,” Bush said in an exchange from White House reporters.

Petition touts benefits of research

The letter of petition, dated Mar. 26, urges Bush to “permit the current National Institutes of Health guidelines governing human pluripotent stem cell research to remain in effect,” thus allowing a continuing effort on stem cell research as well as human embryonic stem cell research.

The letter brings to attention the benefits of pluripotent stem cell research to developing treatments as well as cures for many diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

The presidents of seven of the eight Ivy League universities signed the letter. In addition, the presidents of the California Institute of Technology, Stanford, Duke, Johns Hopkins and Tufts Universities are all among the signers of this petition.

“It is too early to understand how the relations between the Bush administration and the academia will develop, but I am optimistic,” Vest said. “There is strong interest in the White House in developing their approach to science and technology policy.”

Laureates, lawmakers also appeal

Earlier in the year, President Bush received an appeal on the same issue from 80 Nobel laureates, including seven MIT professors. The letter outlined the therapeutic benefits of stem cell research, arguing they outweighed the ethical issues involved.

“The discovery of human pluripotent stem cells is a significant milestone in medical research. The therapeutic potential of pluripotent stem cells is remarkably broad,” said the Nobel laureates. “While [the petitioners] 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.”

The Nobel laureates cited the precedent of using fetal tissue in medical research to support their argument. “For the past 35 years,” they wrote, “many of the common human virus vaccines, such as measles, rubella, hepatitis A, rabies and poliovirus -- have been produced in cells derived from a human fetus to the benefit of tens of millions of Americans. Thus precedent has been established for the use of fetal tissue that would otherwise be discarded.”

“Stem cell research could have significant results in terms of medical treatment; it would be a terrible thing to not have the opportunity to understand its power,” said Institute Professor Jerome I. Friedman, one of the laureates who signed the letter.

Professor Rudolf Jaenisch, who recently testified before Congress on banning human cloning, explained that “the goal of stem cell research is to obtain a source for any somatic cell type to be derived from culture. This can be used to help the sufferers from all kind of diseases: heart, liver, brain, blood, etc.”

“It is important to understand the biological basis for this research,” Jaenisch said.

Support for stem cell research also came from lawmakers. In early March, 95 members of the House of Representatives, including five Republicans, submitted their own letter of petition to President Bush urging him to maintain federal financing of embryonic stem cell research. This letter argues that “the National Institutes of Health has provided stringent requirements which enable scientists to conduct stem cell research within the constraints of careful federal oversight and standards.”

Some oppose stem cell research

The Archbishop of New York has taken a stance against stem cell research, labeling research involving embryonic stem cells as “evil.”

The Catholic Church has established its position in stating that “use of cells from human embryos could not be justified, regardless of how many lives might be saved or improved from the resulting research,” said the Most Rev. Edward M. Egan at the annual meeting of the Association of American Medical Colleges. “Extracting the cells destroys the embryo, which should be treated as a human being,” Egan said.

In a letter to the NIH, 20 Republican senators echoed this view, stating that research derived from destroying embryos is unethical and unlawful.

The future of the stem cell research is still under deliberation at the White House, which still lacks a new science adviser.

Stem cells fundamental to biology

Human pluripotent stem cells were first isolated in 1998. They exist in early embryos to give rise to almost all of the cell types of the body. Further research using human pluripotent stem cells may help generate cells and tissue for transplantation and improve our understanding of the complex events that occur during normal human development. In addition, proponents hope that research in stem cells will enhance our understanding of what causes birth defects and cancer, as well as change the way we develop drugs and test them for safety.

“Stem cell research is an essential component of the human endeavor to understand self in toto,” said Assistant Professor James L. Sherley, who currently conducts non-human stem cell research at MIT. “Stem cells are the biological engines that drive our creation, development, maturation, aging, disease and death. When we understand the molecular details of their function, we will know a great deal more about what and why we are.”

The letter to President Bush from 112 university presidents can be found at .