Three Harvard professors wrote to Congress earlier this month expressing their disappointment over a recent White House report on stem cell science that, they claim, has misrepresented their studies on alternatives for research using human embryonic cells.
Published by the United States Domestic Policy Council (DPC) on Jan. 9, the report on “Advancing Stem Cell Science Without Destroying Human Life” asserted that the results of the scientists’ research emphasized the possibility of “creating cell lines for the study and treatment of disease without the many ethical dilemmas associated with the creation and destruction of embryos.”
In a letter addressed to two Congressmen, Assistant Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology Kevin C. Eggan, Medical School Assistant Professor Chad A. Cowan, and Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences Douglas A. Melton wrote that they were “surprised” to see their work “used to support arguments that research involving human embryonic stem cells is unnecessary.”
“On the contrary, we assert that human embryonic stem cells hold great promise to find new treatments and cures for diseases,” the researchers wrote.
The DPC publication cited research contained in an August 2005 Science article in which the Harvard researchers discovered a method for “reprogramming” adult cells into embryonic stem cells by fusing an adult and embryonic cell together to form a new hybrid cell with the characteristics of an embryonic stem cell.
The DPC report claims that this research justifies President George W. Bush’s current stem cell policy that denies federal funding to researchers using embryonic cells derived after Aug. 9, 2001, because this method could potentially create many embryonic stem cells without destroying additional human embryos.
Representatives at the White House did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
However, the scientists’ disagree that their research supports Bush’s policy to limit the creation of new embryonic stem cell lines.
“The work that we performed and that was cited in the White House policy report is precisely the type of research that is currently being harmed by the President’s arbitrary limitation on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research,” the authors wrote in their letter.
Although reprogramming adult cells into embryonic stem cells may present new therapeutic opportunities in the future, the new process still contains major complications that prevent it from being a viable source of embryonic stem cells, Cowan said.
He explained that the fused, reprogrammed cells contain twice the number of chromosomes as normal cells and therefore do not function like normal human cells.
While scientists attempt to understand and perfect cell reprogramming, Cowan said that current adult stem cell research should not impede methods using embryonic stem cells to treat diseases.
“It may take us 10 to 15 years to really understand how to do this safely and then use the [reprogrammed] cells therapeutically, whereas we already have those [embryonic] cells available to use,” Cowan said. “So it’s sort of like saying wait 15 years until we can do it this way versus let’s go ahead and try to treat people who are suffering from really terrible diseases and try to find cures right now.”