Proponents Plead for Stem Cell Research

Jennifer Estess is running out of time. Estess is dying from a disease called Amyotropic Lateral Sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Speaking in front of a Senate subcommittee hearing, bound to a wheelchair and forced to use a respirator to breathe, Estess, 38, today urged the Senate to pass the Stem Cell Research Act of 2000.

Flanked by fellow actors Mary Tyler-Moore, Gina Gershon and Michael J. Fox, she expressed the urgency of the situation and the importance of stem cell research to her and so many others who are dying every day from ALS, a degenerative disease.

Stem cell research is one of the most contentious issues the Senate has tackled this year, confronting the moral and ethical implications of research on the cells, which are taken from human embryos.

Stem cells are the master cells that in very early embryos generate all the other tissues of the body. The act would enable federally-funded researchers to derive their own stem cells from embryos that would otherwise be discarded and are donated by in-vitro fertilization clinics.

“The discovery of human pluripotent stem cells, the most basic building blocks of the human body, is a major scientific breakthrough, the full value of which cannot be overstated”, says Nobel Laureate Paul Berg, Ph.D of the American Society of Cell Biology.

Potential Cures But the federal government has not funded research into embryonic stem cells because of a congressional ban on any research that destroys human embryos, which taking stem cells does.

Proponents of the research stress its importance, saying stem cells could be used to create new, healthy tissue to replace dead or damaged tissue. The research could result in new treatments or cures for many of the most debilitating diseases such as ALS, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Just Wednesday, the National Institutes of Health reported a potential cure for kidney cancer involving stem cells donated from siblings.

Opponents of stem cell research do not believe that any research should be derived from human embryos. In fact, some of those who could most benefit from stem cell research are the most vehemently opposed.

Ron Heagy has been confined to a wheelchair for the past 20 years after a surfing accident rendered him a quadriplegic. In his testimony, Heagy stressed that even if a “cure” for his spinal injury was discovered he would not take advantage of it because he could never accept its very origin was from human embryos.

Diabetic Russell Saltzman said: “If a cure for diabetes and a host of other ailments require the production and destruction of human embryos then consider the possibility that some diseases are better than their cure.”

New Laws Promised Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the subcommittee, the Appropriations Committee’s Health and Human Services panel, emphasized that stem cell research poses a veritable fountain of youth and could effect the lives of 125 million people.

Specter’s legislation would allow women to agree to donate to federally funded researchers their leftover embryos from in-vitro fertilization.

Thursday’s hearing came on the heels of the NIH’s recent release of new guidelines regarding stem cell research that would place controls over the way scientists could obtain embryos (see related story).

Specter said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., has promised a vote within the month on legislation allowing funding for research on stem cells.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.