Created by on 09/17/2010


The ongoing battle over federal funding for stem cell research shifted to Capitol Hill this week as the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee held ahearing entitled “The Promise of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research.” In his opening statement, subcommittee chairman Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) noted it was the 21st time the panel had discussed stem cell research since the first hearing was held in December 1998 and thanked Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) for his early and consistent leadership on the issue. Acknowledging the circumstances under which the hearing was taking place, Harkin said “we’ve come too far to give up now. If we don’t win this battle in the courts we’ll have to take it up in Congress. This research must continue.” The chairman also stated that the district court injunction “placed a cloud of uncertainty over this entire scientific field.”

Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), one of the authors of the 1995 Dickey-Wicker amendment that prohibits the use of taxpayer funds to create or destroy human embryos for research purposes, addressed the subcommittee briefly at the beginning of the hearing. He argued that the body of scientific evidence developed since 1995 has “served only to strengthen the argument in favor of Dickey-Wicker” and reiterated his belief that the federal government “should not be involved in subsidizing” the destruction or cloning of a human embryo for research purposes because doing so raises profound moral and ethical challenges. Senator Wicker also highlighted a recent poll suggesting that more than 50 percent of Americans oppose taxpayer funding of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research and discussed advancements in the field of adult stem cell research that are helping individuals with cancer, juvenile diabetes, Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis, leukemia, lymphoma, and spinal cord injuries.

Although the hearing did not address the pending legal appeal or any arguments for or against the court’s actions, witnesses – including National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Dr. Francis Collins, three researchers, and a 23-year old woman who was paralyzed as the result of an autoimmune disorder – discussed the state of the current science related to all forms of stem cell research and the role of hESC research in advancing basic understanding of various diseases. Dr. Collins testified that, thanks to the subcommittee’s support, NIH has invested more than $500 million in hESC research, but he indicated that the legal battle may cause younger, as well as more senior researchers, to abandon the field or pursue their work in other countries. He also provided an overview of how research using stem cells is critical for providing key insights into the molecular pathways implicated in development and disease, enabling more targeted and efficient screening of new drug candidates, and allowing for the advancement of regenerative medicine and tissue replacement.

A second panel featuring Dr. George Daley of Children’s Hospital-Boston and Dr. Sean Morrison from the University of Michigan explained why hESC’s are essential to developing a vigorous research portfolio in the United States and described how recent upheavals in federal funding have disrupted ongoing projects. Daley discussed the work he is doing to improve treatments for individuals with blood disorders through research on adult, embryonic, and induced pluripotent stem cells and said it “was a mistake to cast the different types of stem cells as competing priorities.” He also noted that “the only time I confront the argument that adult stem cells are superior to embryonic stem cells and should replace them is at hearings like this.” Dr. Morrison emphatically stated that he believes the federal government must support all forms of stem cell research in order to have the greatest chance of developing new therapies sooner rather than later and urged the subcommittee to “clarify the Dickey-Wicker amendment so that there can be no question regarding Congress’s intent to fund the most meritorious science.” In addition, Jean Peduzzi Nelson, an adult stem cell researcher from Wayne State University School of Medicine, spoke about individuals with spinal cord injuries, chronic heart failure, corneal blindness, sickle cell anemia, and Multiple Sclerosis who had successfully been treated using adult stem cells and stated that federal funding was needed to support clinical trials to expand these therapies from experimental treatments to the standard of care for all patients. She was followed by Cody Unser, a patient advocate who implored Congress to “pass unambiguous legislation” that allows hESC research to move forward.

Senator Harkin began the question and answer portion of the hearing by asking Dr. Collins why is it important for NIH to have the ability to approve additional stem cell lines, how he responds to the argument that federal funds are not needed to advance hESC research, and whether additional work on embryonic cells will improve treatments for diseases that have benefitted from adult stem cell research. Ranking Member Thad Cochran (R-MS) inquired about what would happen if there was no federal support for hESC research, and Dr. Collins replied that termination of government funding would “be an absolutely devastating outcome.” Senator Specter asked how the legal uncertainty has affected the research community and what the federal investment to date has produced in terms of treatments and cures for diseases. Patty Murray (D-WA) spoke briefly and thanked Dr. Collins for the clarity of his testimony. During a second round of questions, Senator Harkin asked the researchers if lawmakers and the public should be disappointed that hESC research has not yet produced cures for specific diseases. Dr. Morrison related how it took scientists 14 years to create a successful procedure for transplanting bone marrow among unrelated patients and noted that hESC research has only been around for 12 years. He reminded the subcommittee that science takes time and that if investigators took the advice of opponents of embryonic stem cell research to abandon lines of inquiry that do not lead to cures within a dozen years, none of the adult stem cell therapies that exist today would have been discovered.