New Stem Cell Study Could Alter Congressional Debate

By John Rossomando | July 7, 2008 | 8:28 PM EDT

( - Recent research at the University of Minnesota, demonstrating that adult stem cells might offer the same medical promise as embryonic stem cells in fighting diseases like arthritis and muscular dystrophy, could also provide conservatives with the ammunition they need during the upcoming cloning debate in the Senate.

The House approved a ban on the cloning of human embryos last July. The Senate is expected to take up legislation on the issue next month.

Catherine Verfaillie, M.D., the director of the University of Minnesota Stem Cell Institute, found that adult stem cells have the same abilities as embryonic stem cells to be transformed into other types of cells with less genetic manipulation. The discovery means that people may one day be able to use stem cells from their own bodies to repair damaged body parts.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is hopeful that this latest scientific discovery will persuade the Senate to oppose embryonic stem cell research.

Richard Doerflinger, associate director for policy development at the conference of bishops, said it could also block the progress of a bill sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would permit embryos to be cloned for stem cell research.

"If adult patients can get stem cells from their own bodies to treat disease, [then] we simply don't need cloned embryos to provide genetically matched tissue," Doerflinger said.

The Juvenile Diabetes Foundation is skeptical of Verfaillie's findings, saying that they need to be verified by further scientific research and that they have no appreciable impact on the embryonic stem cell debate.

"Until somebody actually comes forward and demonstrates consistently that you can do these things, it doesn't change any part of the debate," said Juvenile Diabetes Foundation Chief Scientific Officer Robert Goldstein. "We said that we think you need both kinds of research to go forward; this hasn't shown that this isn't the only way to go and this is the only answer.

"This is just another example of research progress," Goldstein said. "I don't see how one particular piece of evidence would influence the debate in any way, shape or form."

Sara Howard, press secretary to Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) believes the discovery will have minimal impact on how senators eventually vote on the embryonic cloning issue.

"It's certainly interesting, but I don't know it will have [an impact on the debate]," Howard said. "I am sure that people will try to use the findings for their own particular agenda, but that seems kind of difficult because the very person who ran the study doesn't believe that it should have any relevance on whether there is a ban on embryo research."

In fact, Verfaillie did indicate "it's too soon to say [adult stem cells] have the same potential and capabilities as embryo cells." She added that she is against a ban on embryo research.

Howard said Dayton favors banning the use of cloning for "reproductive purposes," but thinks all research avenues need to be kept open.

"[Dayton] opposes a ban on cloning for research purposes, as it may close the door on important research discoveries," Howard said.

Still, Senate forces opposed to embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning have found new confidence from the study.

"Science continues to prove that destructive embryonic stem cell research is unnecessary," Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) said in a statement. "This latest finding is of enormous importance. It shows, once again, that we can find cures for the many diseases that plague humanity."

A spokesperson from Feinstein's office said they were not familiar enough with the research to comment.

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