From M, spring 2004
The University of Minnesota's recent decision to pursue investigation of embryonic stem cells has received considerable attention over the past couple of weeks. Stem cells--parent cells for all the body's tissues--offer great potential and promise for important medical treatments and cures. But embryonic stem cell use is controversial, and federal funding is prohibited for research on newly donated embryos. Following is a brief Q & A on some of the main issues surrounding stem cell research at the University.
Q. Do University scientists currently study embryonic stem cells? A. Yes. Scientists at the University of Minnesota Stem Cell Institute study stem cells derived from adult bone marrow as well as embryo stem cells approved for federal research funding by President Bush in 2001.
Q. If University scientists already have embryo stem cells to study, why do they want to expand the effort? A. Scientists find the few federally approved stem cell lines lacking for a couple of reasons. First, of the nearly 70 lines thought to be available for research, the National Institutes of Health have approved fewer than a dozen for research. Second, the human embryo stem cells approved for federal research funding by President Bush in 2001 have been contaminated by mouse cells and are not likely to be useful in any clinical way. Third, and perhaps most importantly, these approved lines represent only a tiny fraction of the human gene pool, which does not well-represent the diversity of the human population or the diversity of human illness. The existing cells may not be usable for someone with a certain disease or the studies' results may only be applicable in a very limited case.
Q. Where will these new embryo stem cells come from? A. First, no embryos are created specifically for research use at the University of Minnesota. It is parents who go to fertility clinics that must decide the fate of any unused embryos. They are given four choices: they can save them for future use, they can donate them to others, they can discard them, or they can donate them to research. The University will not be creating embryos, but using the embryos that families have chosen to donate to research.
Embryos donated for research come from fertility clinics where parents have chosen to donate any of their unused, frozen five- or six-day embryo blastocysts rather than discard them.
Q. Is it legal for the University to do research with embryo stem cells that are not from federally approved embryo stem cell lines? A. Yes. The research is entirely legal. But it would not be legal to pay for it with federal funds. That is why the University is seeking private funding for the research effort. The University decided to pursue this research only after nearly two years of internal review, consultation, and discussion.
Q. What are stem cells, exactly? A. Stem cells are parent cells for all the tissues of the body. These cells have not decided to become any other part of the body yet. Embryo stem cells have the ability to become everything, which is their great potential and promise for important new medical treatments and cures.
Q. How can stem cell research benefit the public? A. Here at the University, researchers are studying the use of all types of stem cells for repair of damaged hearts, treatments and cures for Parkinson's and stroke, as well as treatments for inherited genetic diseases.
Q. Why is this research taking place at the University of Minnesota? A. The University of Minnesota has a long history and strong heritage of breakthroughs in medicine and medical research including open-heart surgery, transplantation, and other types of landmark cell biology. The University enjoys an international reputation for our scientists' work in bone marrow transplantation, pioneering work in the therapeutic uses of umbilical cord blood, and international attention for our work in adult stem cell research. Q. Why study embryo stem cells? Aren't adult cells enough? A. As Dr. Catherine Verfaillie has testified, investigators do not know which cell, adult or embryo, will ultimately be the best cell for clinical use and treating a particular disease, and second, lessons learned in one system will be applicable in the other system. Decisions that restrict the funding or legality of research would be premature and harmful to both the scientific process and to the patients who will benefit from treatments developed as a result of our research.
Precisely because the University is a public institution, dedicated to the free and open pursuit of ideas, this research should take place here. A public university provides right of access to information to the public. And a public university provides rigorous public oversight and review of all research taking place here.
Q. What about the ethical issues with stem cell research? A. University researchers are working to expand the boundaries of human knowledge with the goal of benefiting human health. The University understands that some may have concerns about this research and is prepared to engage in a dialogue about the legal, ethical, and moral issues of this research.
We take these issues very seriously at the University and work diligently to ensure all research is conducted respectfully, in full accordance with all applicable laws and regulations, and respect for the moral and ethical questions surrounding the research.
Q. Are there limits to research done at the University of Minnesota? A. Public research universities exist to pursue new knowledge that can improve life or the quality of life for our communities. In general, this University will pursue all research that is legal, that receives funding, and that is of academic or research value to faculty of the University.
Q. Where can I go for more scientific information about stem cells? A. The federal National Institutes of Health has an excellent Web site: http://stemcells.nih.gov/infoCenter/stemCellBasics.asp.