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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    “Obama lifts stem cell limits, UA still restricted”

    On March 9, President Barack Obama lifted the Bush administration’s strict limits on human embryonic stem cell research. However, restrictions still exist at the UA, due to controversial stances and questions of morality.

    Obama issued Executive Order (EO) 13505, titled “”Removing Barriers to Responsible Scientific Research Involving Human Stem Cells.”” The decision changes the way National Institutes of Health (NIH) can conduct human stem cell research.

    Even with this new order enacted, the state of Arizona still bans any funding of research that involves a human embryo or fetus.

    “”There’s still quite a few restrictions doing any human embryonic stem cell work here at the university,”” said Dr. David Harris, professor in the department of immunobiology and scientific director of cord blood registry. “”So we haven’t seen that much of a change, yet. What I hope it does is encourage research and funding in stem cell research in general. We want to use embryonic stem cells as good disease models, to study the disease and figure out how to treat it. Then, we use the other stem cells to actually treat it – we need money for both of those things.””

    Currently, Harris and his team of researchers are working to create an animal model for cerebral palsy. He said one in 300 children suffer from in utero brain damage and is born with various degrees of disability.

    “”We found that giving them back their own stem cells actually helps to fix that,”” Harris said. “”We would like to create an animal model where we could study the best way to treat these kids. First, how to identify them at birth – and then, what is the best treatment. Kids may need multiple stem cell injections, cell doses, other things like that. Each year in Arizona, there are about 100 of these kids born.””

    The ban has made life difficult for stem cell researchers since former-President George W. Bush put restrictions on financing embryonic stem cell research. According to the NIH, stem cells have the potential to develop into different cell types in the body, which can serve as a repair system for the body, becoming another type of cell with a specialized function, such as a red blood cell or brain cell.

    “”Embryonic stem cells can become anything, including another person,”” Harris said. “”So, that’s both good and bad. It’s good because you can have a cell that can become any tissue you might need, it’s bad because people think of that as an embryo or a fetus – when actually it hasn’t gotten to that stage.””

    While researchers at the UA hope to receive funding to support research on human embryos, in the eyes some members of the Catholic Newman Center, this is a grave sin.

    “”It is performing an evil act,”” said Father Bart Hutcherson, pastor and director of the Catholic Newman Center. “”It’s willful destruction of an innocent life. The embryo is alive, it has already been born, it has a right to live. Just as the Catholic Church opposes abortion, it opposes embryonic stem cell research.””

    According to Hutcherson, embryonic stem cell research is taking a human being and making it a means to an end.

    “”The Catholic moral teaching is incredibly consistent. Our primary value is that every human being has the right to life; it is the responsibility of the church,”” Hutcherson said. “”We need to be the voice for those that cannot defend themselves. Children who have not been born yet – they do not have a voice. The Catholic church speaks for them.””

    Research on genetically matched embryonic stem cells is important for many reasons, Harris said. Treating patients using their own cells will avoid any chance of rejection. However, the main interest in research is to derive embryonic stem cells from patients with specific diseases, such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, to develop a basic knowledge of how the disease developed.

    Congress first placed restrictions on embryonic stem cell research during the Clinton presidency, forbidding the funding of experiments involving the destruction of a human embryo. Federally financed researchers will find it easier to work on projects that, until now, had to be done in privately financed labs after making sure no federal grant money was used, he said.

    “”Embryonic stem cells have to be made in a laboratory, so you don’t get them from aborted fetuses,”” Harris said. “”You take the egg and the sperm and you place them together, after about five days of division when there’s about 30-60 cells, you stop the division and you isolate the embryonic stem cells. There’s usually somewhere between five to a dozen stem cells at that time. There’s no fetus, no heart, just a little ball of cells that you have to make in a laboratory, and that is what the controversy is about.””

    One way to obtain matched cells needed to study diseases is to use a cell from an adult who has contracted the disease, he said. Then, you can create a genetically matched embryo and extract its stem cells to try recognizing the disease at an earlier stage.

    “”That’s the tricky part with embryonic research,”” said Dr. Jonathan Flax, a UA research professor of molecular and cellular biology in the UA Department of Neurology. “”Most Christians believe that life begins at conception. If that is the case, then technically it’s destroying a human life. However, that same embryo can be made into a cell line to replace damaged tissue, saving thousands of people. It’s a trade-off; both sides have a strong moral position.””

    According to Flax, Obama’s decision not only reflects his personal belief, but his political perspective.

    “”The vast majority of the country support embryonic stem cell research – he is doing what the country wants,”” Flax said. “”Experiments lead to conclusions; President Obama is stepping away from manipulating science and society. He is changing the culture of science, it’s a very exciting time.””

    Researchers across the country are hoping this change will fuel new sources of grant money. Obama lifted the ban, but he hasn’t put any funding into it yet.

    “”It’s all politics – we try to separate religion and politics in the United States. It should be pretty much the same thing with religion and science,”” Harris said. “”Now, we can hope for our experiments to be supported in large amounts. It’s still early, but it will be great for all areas of stem cell research.””

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