Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) chaired a hearing for the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Subcommittee to discuss the promise of human embryonic stem cell research, bringing together Senators from both parties and top scientists performing stem cell research. Although the recent injunction on funding for embryonic stem cell research was mentioned, Harkin made it clear that this hearing was not meant to relitigate the court case but to describe the science.
Francis Collins, MD, PhD, director of the National Institutes of Health, laid the groundwork for why human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research is so important. He explained that there are three types of stem cells that are being studied today: embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells. The important characteristic of embryonic stem cells is that they are pluripotent; they can become almost any cell type in the body, which makes them incredibly powerful tools for research and therapy. Adult stem cells are stem cells that have already differentiated to become a certain cell type, so they are no longer pluripotent. Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) are adult stem cells that have been genetically manipulated to be pluripotent; however, these cells do not behave the same as hESC.
Many opponents to federal funding of hESC research say that adult stem cells or iPSC can be used in place of hESC, so there is no need to study hESC. Collins and other panelists refute this claim. Along with Collins, George Daley, Director of Stem Cell Transplantation and Associate Director of the Stem Cell Program at Children’s Hospital Boston, and Dr. Sean Morrison, Director of the Center for Stem Cell Biology at the University of Michigan Life Science Institute advocate for funding to study all three types of stem cells. It is clear from the scientists’ perspectives that hESC, adult stem cells and iPSC may all be useful for specific applications; neither is overall better than another. Importantly, we do not yet know which cell type will work best for specific applications, so we must continue research using all three.
Loss of funding for hESC will have devastating consequences, according to Dr. Collins. The injunction has already cast a cloud of uncertainty over the field. Several of the panelists voiced concern that young, promising scientists will not pursue research using hESC; they may move to other fields of research or they may choose to take their work overseas. The US’s place at the top of the scientific research field may come into question.
More importantly, patients are losing hope. Cody Unsar, Founder of the Cody Unsar First Step Foundation, said that hESC research gave her hope for a cure for paralysis, but all of that is thrown into doubt. Patients have the most to lose in this debate.
As Harkin mentioned in his opening remarks, we all know someone who is or who will be affected by a disease that could be treated with knowledge gained from hESC research. This is a largely untapped field of inquiry, and we cannot throw away all of that prospective knowledge.
- Kate Greenberg, PhD
(Note: Kate’s take on her first congressional hearing can be found on our New Voices blog.)