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Subcommittee hears testimony on stem cell research
WASHINGTON (CNN) - Advocates for stem cell research told U.S. Senators on Capitol Hill Thursday it's time to move forward with the promising, but controversial, scientific work.
Scientists, actors and activists testified before the Senate subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, which is trying to determine what kinds of patients might benefit from the research.
Among the witnesses were celebrities Mary Tyler Moore, who chairs the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, and Michael J. Fox, who recently quit acting to focus on Parkinson's disease research.
Fox, who referred to himself as "one of a million involuntary experts" on the disease, told lawmakers that "stem cell research offers the chance of a medical miracle."
Stem cells are "blank" cells that can potentially form any kind of tissue in the body. Doctors say harnessing the power of those cells could one day lead to treatments -- or even cures -- for a number of diseases.
For instance, they might be used to regenerate nerve cells to repair damaged spinal cords, helping paralyzed people walk again. Or they might be used to slow or reverse the damage done by Parkinson's disease. Some doctors even hold out the hope that stem cell research could be used to create an unlimited supply of organs for transplant.
"This research offers the potential to eliminate diseases and literally save millions of lives… (but) it's time to act on what we've learned. Sadly, we've already lost two years," Fox said.
Moore, who has suffered from diabetes for more than 30 years, cited research in Canada in which healthy pancreatic cells were transplanted into young diabetics, many of whom no longer require insulin injections.
"There is evidence that a cure is within our grasp," explained Moore.
She told the committee that one U.S. diabetic dies of the disease every three minutes.
Although the prospects are tantalizing, the way scientists obtain stem cells is highly controversial. The cells are taken from embryos -- either from aborted fetuses or from embryos created through in vitro fertilization that are not going to be used.
Last month, the National Institutes of Health revised its guidelines on stem cell research to allow federally funded scientists to conduct research on human embryos under certain conditions.
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania told colleagues that there are "perhaps 100,000 frozen human embryos" that could be used for research into diseases such as Parkinson's and diabetes.
But abortion opponents say such research is tantamount to the government taking one life for another.
"As deeply concerned as we are about the treatment and cure of disease, we don't believe the average American wants to see tiny embryonic boys and girls, little children, used as experimental material," said Judie Brown, a spokeswoman for the American Life League.
Leading researchers say denying federally funded labs the ability to conduct research on embryonic stem cells has held back research that could have led to cures for killers like diabetes and heart disease.
"We could have made tremendous progress in getting these cells toward clinical application if federal funding had been available," said Dr. John Gearhart, a stem cell researcher.
Gearhart and others also say federally funded labs have more oversight that would guarantee adherence to ethical guidelines.
But critics say new developments with adult stem cells should be pursued as a more ethical alternative to using embryonic stem cells.
"The problem we have with this particular type of research," said Brown, "is that you have to kill a person to get these stem cells. That's unethical."
Another source of stem cells being studied, therapeutic cloning, is no less controversial. It involves creating an embryonic clone of the patient, and then harvesting stem cells from the clone.The U.S. government does not allow this or any other type of human cloning, but Britain recently relaxed its guidelines to allow therapeutic cloning.
CNN Medical Correspondent Eileen O'Connor contributed to this report.
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National Institutes of Health (NIH)
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