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August 24th, 2005 Adrian Chen | News Stories
 

THE STEM-CELL SHUFFLE

Pro-life Republican Sen. Gordon Smith backs embryonic stem-cell research. Top OHSU stem-cell scientist doesn't. Huh?

     
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The debate in Congress over embryonic stem-cell research puts Oregon Republican Sen. Gordon Smith and the state's most influential stem-cell scientist in very unexpected corners.

Smith, a longtime friend of anti-abortion groups fighting embryonic stem-cell (ES) research, has co-sponsored a bill hailed by many scientists to expand that research. Dr. Markus Grompe, head of Oregon Health & Science University's Oregon Stem Cell Center, opposes that bill.

Both cite their personal experiences among the justifications for disappointing their natural political and scientific allies on the topic.

Grompe adopts his Catholic Church's position that "the ends don't justify the means'' when it comes to destroying embryos, but he also points to his background as a German immigrant.

"Ever since the Third Reich, people [in Germany] have had a higher threshold for what they call non-humans," says Grompe, director of the $4.5 million Oregon Stem Cell Center, the state's only institute dedicated to stem-cell research. "I've pretty much openly stated from day one my opposition to the destruction of human embryos for the procurement of stem cells."

Currently, the only way to get embryonic stem cells is by destroying an embryo, though Harvard scientists recently announced new promise for turning skin cells into embryonic stem cells.

Grompe will not direct the OHSU center toward the ES research that scientists say has such promise for curing disease. Instead, the center will focus on adult stem cells already proven useful in treatments but thought less versatile than their embryonic counterparts.

In June, Grompe and a member of President Bush's Council on Bioethics co-wrote a Wall Street Journal editorial advocating an untested procedure for retrieving stem cells without destroying an embryo known as oocyte-assisted reprogramming (OAR). That push has some of Grompe's stem-cell colleagues grumbling that these untried alternatives will divert attention and-more importantly-funding away from research using successful, established methods.

"Alta Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, ascribes much of the enthusiasm to conservative politicians jumping on the ES bandwagon without irking pro-life constituents. Dr. Don Wolf, an OHSU professor specializing in primate stem-cell research, recognizes OAR's potential but adds it seems undesirable to set aside funds "for basically political reasons."

Smith proved willing to break with pro-lifers and the White House in February when he co-sponsored a bill that would allow the destruction of "spare" embryos in fertility clinics to obtain new ES lines for research.

Supporters say the bill-endorsed unexpectedly last month by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist-has the votes to pass the Senate, though Bush has vowed a veto.

"The American people overwhelmingly want us to pursue the health, hope and healing that can come from stem-cell research,'' Smith says.

It's a surprising crusade for Smith, a practicing Mormon who believes life doesn't begin until an embryo is implanted into the womb. And he's made it clear that personal experience trumps his past record and party lines: His uncle, grandmother and cousin died of Parkinson's disease-one of the many diseases stem cells may one day cure.

Oregon's pro-lifers seem to forgive Smith.

"He's been very supportive of all our other stands," says Gayle Atteberry, executive director of Oregon Right to Life. "It's unfortunate that on this one issue we don't see eye-to-eye."

 
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