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Stem-cell research has potential to relieve suffering

SHARE Stem-cell research has potential to relieve suffering

Every day, those of us who work at the University of Utah Health Sciences Center witness human suffering and death caused by progressive diseases and crippling injuries that are not now in our power to cure.That is why I so deeply appreciate U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, for his courageous stand in favor of using federal funds for carefully-regulated research involving embryonic stem cells. These cells hold the promise for solutions to many of our most devastating diseases.

Some critics contend the position taken by Sen. Hatch and, more recently, by U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, conflicts with their pro-life beliefs. But many of us who deal daily with death and disease see it differently. The senators rightfully recognize the vast potential of stem-cell research for saving human lives and reducing human misery. Their position is, unarguably, life-promoting.

Imagine if doctors could replace damaged nerve cells to repair the brains of people suffering from a stroke, Alzheimer's disease or Parkinson's disease. Consider the possibility of repairing crippling spinal cord injuries or treating diabetic patients by restoring the pancreas' ability to make insulin.

Ponder the implications if scientists could grow the cells of vital organs for people who will die without transplants.

It will take years of research to determine if the promise of "regenerative medicine" becomes reality. But such research can go forward only if scientists can use human embryonic stem cells, those which develop a few days after a human egg is fertilized. It is these cells and only these cells that are capable of developing into any tissue or organ in the human body — nerve, skin, muscle, liver, blood, heart and so on.

Some people oppose embryonic stem-cell research, arguing that human embryos must be destroyed to obtain the cells. While I respect their views, I believe they overlook vital facts. Stem cells are derived from week-old embryos — no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence — left over from the treatment of infertile couples who want children. The leftover embryos were fertilized in laboratory dishes, were never inside a woman's womb, often are not viable and now are simply discarded.

If President Bush follows the advice of Sens. Hatch and Bennett, such embryos will be used for life-saving purposes instead of being disposed.

Since 1996, federal law has banned federal funding for research that would damage or destroy human embryos. But in 1999, the government decided to allow federal funding of research that uses embryonic stem cells if the cells were extracted by private researchers without federal money. President Bush is considering whether to reverse that decision.

No responsible physician/researcher would argue against the imposition of safeguards and stipulations in embryo collections.

For example, under National Institutes of Health (NIH) guidelines issued last year, federal funds could be used for embryonic stem cell research only if the cells were taken from embryos left over from infertility treatments.

Without federal funding, there will be no government oversight. Privately funded laboratories will produce embryos solely for research. A private lab in Virginia recently became the first to do that — a development Sen. Hatch noted in urging federal funding within strict ethical guidelines.

If embryonic stem cell research remains only in the hands of for-profit corporations, future benefits will cost much more for people who are sick. The Department of Health and Human Services has said NIH guidelines on stem-cell research will help ensure "full public access to the practical medical benefits of research using these cells."

Opponents of embryonic stem cell research argue that stem cells from adults can be used instead. In certain cases, that might prove true.

Indeed, some experiments indicate that adult stem cells might be used to create heart and liver cells to repair damage to those organs.

Certain cases, but certainly not all. Unlike embryonic cells, adult stem cells cannot become any kind of cell or tissue. They also are more difficult to obtain and purify, may have more genetic damage and do not grow as well as embryonic stem cells. Scientists widely agree research with adult and embryonic stem cells is necessary to determine which may better help people suffering disease.

Sens. Hatch and Bennett, along with many other compassionate and forward-thinking pro-life advocates, have urged federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

Among them, former first lady Nancy Reagan — whose husband suffers the brain-ravaging effects of Alzheimer's disease — has privately written to President Bush in support of stem-cell research.

The University of Utah administration thanks Sen. Hatch for the leadership he has shown in taking a courageous stand that affirms the value of human life.

A. Lorris Betz is senior vice president for health sciences at the University of Utah.