The Genetizen

Genetizen

Advances in genetics and biotechnology are impacting society in provocative ways. The Genetizen is written by a select group of scientists, bioethicists, and healthcare professionals who provide you with expert analysis and commentary on many important issues.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in blog postings may or may not reflect the opinions of Geneforum. In addition, the content provided here is purely informational and not a substitute for advice from your personal physician.



June 16 update

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said June 15 he hoped to have a vote within a month on the controversial issue of expanding federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. He agrees with Bush's 2001 limitations on the research but also said, "It is time, with advancing science, that we review where we are, review not just the president's policy, but where is science today." He also said he would not promote research that "crosses certain ethical guidelines."

Frist did not specify whether the Senate's starting point would be the House bill (H.B. 810) or less controversial alternatives that do not use embryos (H. B. 2540).

Oregon Republican Gordon Smith said there has been some discussion among Republicans about a vote by the end of June. Several Democratic aides said they expected a vote soon after the Senate returns from its July 4 recess. [Info comes from Reuters AlertNet]      

Marie Godfrey, PhD

No action; bills in progress

Stem cell research, Adult

H.R.2520
Title: To provide for the collection and maintenance of human cord blood stem cells for the treatment of patients and research, and to amend the Public Health Service Act to authorize the C.W. Bill Young Cell Transplantation Program.
Sponsor: Rep Smith, Christopher H. [NJ-4] (introduced 5/23/2005)      Cosponsors (78)
Latest Major Action: 5/26/2005 Received in the Senate.

H.R.2541
Title: To amend the Public Health Service Act to provide for the expansion, intensification, and coordination of the activities of the National Institutes of Health regarding qualifying adult stem cell research, and for other purposes.
Sponsor: Rep King, Peter T. [NY-3] (introduced 5/23/2005)      Cosponsors (4)
Latest Major Action: 5/23/2005 Referred to House committee. Status: Referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

S.681
Title: A bill to amend the Public Health Service Act to establish a National Cord Blood Stem Cell Bank Network to prepare, store, and distribute human umbilical cord blood stem cells for the treatment of patients and to support peer-reviewed research using such cells.
Sponsor: Sen Hatch, Orrin G. [UT] (introduced 3/17/2005)      Cosponsors (8)
Related Bills: H.R.596
Latest Major Action: 3/17/2005 Referred to Senate committee. Status: Read twice and referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

Stem cell research, embryonic

H.R.810
Title: To amend the Public Health Service Act to provide for human embryonic stem cell research.
Sponsor: Rep Castle, Michael N. [DE] (introduced 2/15/2005)      Cosponsors (200)
Related Bills: S.471
Latest Major Action: 6/6/2005 Read the second time. Placed on Senate Legislative Calendar under General Orders. Calendar No. 119.

S.471
Title: A bill to amend the Public Health Service Act to provide for human embryonic stem cell research.
Sponsor: Sen Specter, Arlen [PA] (introduced 2/28/2005)      Cosponsors (36)
Related Bills: H.R.810
Latest Major Action: 2/28/2005 Referred to Senate committee. Status: Read twice and referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions

S.876
Title: A bill to prohibit human cloning and protect stem cell research.
Sponsor: Sen Hatch, Orrin G. [UT] (introduced 4/21/2005)      Cosponsors (11)
Related Bills: H.R.1822
Latest Major Action: 4/21/2005 Referred to Senate committee. Status: Read twice and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.

May 26, June 6 in the U.S. Senate

Since I find it unreasonable to ask questions and not try to find the answers, I spent the morning finding out what's happening in the Senate in relation to stem cells. Here's what I found:

On May 26, the senate met at 9:30 a.m.

  • Item 17: Harry Reid (D-NV) spoke of stem cell research and H.B. 810, indicating his hope that the majority leader (Bill Frist, R-TN) would study the matter during the break [Memorial Day recess]. Reid stated that he wanted the bill to remain as freestanding legislation and not be added to some other matter, expected the work to be quick, and hoped to work on the issue during the 4-week work period [between Memorial Day and July 4th].
  • Item 47: At 5:27 p.m., a message from the House of Representatives, delivered by Mr. Hays, one of its reading clerks, announced that the House has passed the following bills, in which it requests the concurrence of the Senate:
  • H.R. 810. An act to amend the Public Health Service Act to provide for human embryonic stem cell research.
  • H.R. 2520. An act to provide for the collection and maintenance of human cord blood stem cells for the treatment of patients and research, and to amend the Public Health Service Act to authorize the C.W. Bill Young Cell Transplantation Program.
  • Item 51: H.B. 810 was read for the first time. Frist objected to his own request for a second reading, so that the bill could be read for the second time on the next legislative day.

On June 6, the Senate met at 2:00 p.m.

  • Item 12: Frist acknowledged a bill due a second reading, and after its announcement as H.B. 810, objected to further proceeding and the bill was placed on the calendar on the next legislative day. [It received General Order number 119; 118 is defense base closure and realignment.]

Marie Godfrey, PhD

What's happening in U.S. Senate?

On May 26, just after the House vote passing the stem cell bill (H.B. 810), Senate leaders called for "a swift vote in the Senate on legislation to expand federal support of embryonic stem cell research."  Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid urged an "up-or-down vote" -- one with no amendments allowed.

But, nothing seems to be happening. The Senate bill (S 471) is identical to the one passed in the House on May 25. Following two readings on February 25 and referral to committee, the bill has not appeared on any committee or Senate calendars. Is this intentional or does the Senate have so much other business to attend to it has no time for this controversial issue?

Marie Godfrey, PhD

Stem cells and politics

When I wrote of opinion as based on fact and emotion, I didn't distinguish public from personal opinion. Politicians each have their own personal opinions, but they must also consider the opinions of the public they serve. Senator Orrin Hatch (R, UT), one of the sponsors of the Senate stem-cell bill, is getting some complaints in Utah. In stating his support of the extension of federal funding to stem-cell lines created from "discarded" embryos, he's directly countering President Bush, who has stated he will veto the bill if it is passed. The bill is so similar to the one recently passed in the House, that the Senate is considering not even discussing the bill but calling for a general vote of support.

Many in Utah, who have always seen Hatch clearly aligned with Bush, are questioning both his political loyalty and his opinion on stem cell research. Hatch has stated that he believes an embryo is only a human after it implants in a uterus; his opinion is a very popular one, but quite contrary to the idea that souls are created by God and endowed with a human body through the fertilization process. Many other faiths also believe that the soul — the "real" essence of a human being — is an integral part of the first cell (the zygote) and that removing cells from an embryo — whatever its age — kills a human being.

This is one of the many questions policy makers and those who provide their opinions in the formation of public policy must consider in the stem-cell debate. Although we are unlikely to agree on when life begins, or when an embryo is a human being, decisions about whether to fund stem-cell research will be based, in part, on our opinions. It seems to me that thinking this out for ourselves and then transmitting our opinions to those who make policy are crucial.

Marie Godfrey, PhD

Overturning vetos: Massachusetts did it

Legislators in Massachusetts overturned Gov. Mitt Romney's veto and approved a bill giving state health officials regulatory control over stem cell research.

This is one victory for stem cell research that I particularly relish. Mitt served as head of Utah's Olympic effort in 2002 -- as a resident of Utah, yet claimed to be a resident of Massachusetts when he entered the race for Governor of that state. Is this a precedent for another Republican who has threatened veto of a stem cell bill?

Meanwhile, Connecticut's House of Representatives gave final approval May 31 to a 10-year, $100 million stem cell funding plan; the state Senate had already approved the measure. Gov. M. Jodi Rell has said she would sign it into law.

Connecticut is where I grew up and began learning about the excitement of research in genetics. Another smile.

Marie Godfrey, PhD

Genetizen's blog

What is a cell?

Ever so often, we need to repeat the basic questions before we can go on to the more difficult ones. So, what's a cell?

The cell is the smallest complete unit of a living organism. Bacteria are one-cell organisms; humans have many millions of cells. For multicellular organisms, the cell (zygote) created by the fertilization of a egg by a sperm can multiply, differentiate into many different tissue types (e.g., muscle, nervous, cardiac), form different organ systems (e.g., cardiovascular, skin, digestive tract), and become an entire human being. In humans, as with all mammals, development into an independent living organism is only possible if the zygote implants itself in a female's uterus within a limited number of cell disivions after fertilization.

During differentiation, most cells follow a one-way path towards one of the many different tissue types needed by the body. Although nearly all cells of a human being contain the same genetic information (genotype), cells of one tissue type (e.g., muscle) are different in appearance and function (phenotype) from all cells of other tissue types (e.g., nerve and skin).

Because the body often needs different numbers of certain cells, the body's remarkably efficient construction system maintains a supply of cells that have not completed their differentiation. In particular, stem cells in bone marrow can produce lymphocytes, leukocytes, and other blood cells. Except for these "undifferentiated" cells, one tissue type cannot produce another tissue type; e.g., muscle cells cannot produce nerve cells.

Two cell types of the human body are "special". The sex cells -- oocytes and spermatocytes -- produce specialized reproductive cells -- eggs (ova) and sperm -- which have only half the genetic material of other body cells. Human females produce all their egg cells before birth; males produce their sperm cells over many years. An egg or sperm must combine with its matching type (forming a zygote) before it can multiply. The other special type of cell is red blood cells (erythrocytes), which have differentiated so far they no longer contain any genetic material and can no longer produce new cells.

Marie Godfrey, PhD

Genetizen's blog

Opinions: combinations of facts and emotion

Last week's discussion of the "stem-cell" bill (H.B. 810) in the House of Representatives was filled with facts -- delivered in 1 and 2-minute pieces. Each speaker was trying to convince listeners that their opinion is the right one and they were using lots of numbers to try to do it. But, facts may change and emotions often stay the same. 

When I was a college student, Watson & Crick had just announced the structure of DNA and started what we called "the dogma": genetic instructions flow only from DNA to RNA to protein. Fact. Then, a graduate student with enough nerve to challenge the dogma found an enzyme now called reverse transcriptase and we discovered that the fact  had to be modified: RNA can give instructions for DNA. Facts change.

Last week, I was lucky enough to catch the last couple of hours of the debate on H.B. 810 and I listened to people's opinions as they called in during the 15-minute vote.  I learned that people have strong opinions -- as I expected; and, I was surprised to learn that both those who agreed with my opinion and those who don't spoke from a reasonable and factual basis. They knew what they were talking about and had used both fact and emotion to form their opinions.

As a geneticist, I am excited about the prospect of creating pancreatic cells that will make insulin; but, my experience and emotion make me wonder whether stem cells will be of similar value to someone whose diabetes results not from a lack of insulin, but from insulin resistance. Meanwhile, I gather and weigh the facts presently available so my opinion can be as informed as possible.

Marie Godfrey, PhD

Next blog: What are some of the questions we could ask about stem cells?

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