Jan. 30-Feb. 12, 2004
Vol. 34, Issue 2
Back Issues
Darden to run ethics institute
First Lady of Virginia, Lisa Collis, a leader in public service
Facilities focus of BOV’s Student Affairs meeting
Headlines @ U.Va.
Undergrad wins Mitchell Scholarship
Online COMPASS makes room reservations easy
Humans began altering global climate thousands of years ago
Xiaoming ‘Peter’ Yu
Revisiting Racial Diversity
2004 Black History Month Calendar of Events
Stem-cell researcher finds unusual ally in GOP leader
Can the spam: E-mail filter weeds out those unwanted messages
Collage glues together numerous pespectives
What’s a Didjeridu?
Mini-med school accepting applications until Feb. 27
Students drive real estate market

Stem-cell researcher finds unusual ally in GOP leader
Roy Ogle lobbies for expansion of research guidelines

Roy Ogle
Photo by Tom Cogill
U.Va. scientist Roy Ogle envisions an immunotype library of 3,000 to 4,000 different cell lines from a diverse spectrum of the human race.

By Dan Heuchert

They remain, almost forgotten, in the recesses of fertility-clinic freezers across America: unused frozen embryos, the result of in vitro fertilization procedures. Years after previously infertile couples have finally conceived, been lavished with baby-shower gifts, given birth and brought their babies home to sunny nurseries, “extra” embryos often remain frozen in liquid nitrogen — or are eventually discarded.

Some scientists believe stem cells from those embryos might help unlock the secrets to potential treatments for an array of insidious diseases: Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer. But others believe the embryos are more than frozen biological material; they represent potential human lives.

This flaming potato of an issue has landed on the floor of the U.S. Senate, where politics often mixes unusual ingredients. In this case, you might not find a more unusual pairing than U.Va.’s Roy C. Ogle, associate professor of cell biology and neurological surgery and a self-described liberal, and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.

One night last spring, Ogle was at home when the phone rang. The caller identified himself as Specter. “I thought it was a joke,” Ogle said.
It was no joke. Specter had found Ogle’s name on the short roster of scientists conducting National Institutes of Health-funded research using human stem cells — U.Va. has one of the only 16 labs nationwide that have grants to use NIH-approved cells — and was calling to ask Ogle to testify before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Department of Health and Human Services. Specter has broken ranks with the majority of his fellow Republicans — including President Bush — on the issue, and was looking for some scientific backup.
And so it was that on May 18, Ogle found himself testifying before the Senate and working the corridors of Congress afterward, seeking to line up support for relaxing Bush’s strict limits on the use of human embryonic stem-cell lines.

“It’s not something I imagined that I would ever be doing,” Ogle said. “I’m not a big politician.”

A little scientific background: Stem cells are precursor cells — essentially “blank” cells that have the potential to divide and differentiate themselves into specialized types of cells. Scientists are seeking to learn how to control the specialization process and to use the cells in people to replace their damaged cells destroyed by injury or illness.

There are three main types of stem cells. Embryonic stem cells can become virtually anything and have an unlimited potential to divide, but also are regarded as the least stable and predictable. Fetal stem cells offer lesser potential and more stability, while adult stem cells offer the lowest potential for division, fewer possible uses, but the greatest amount of stability.

Cell lines arise from harvested stem cells, which are cloned and prompted to divide until they create a blastocyst — a 5- to 7-day-old embryo. Cells inside the blastocyst then create more stem cells, which perpetuate the “line.”

Embryonic stem cells are the more controversial, because harvesting them necessarily means the destruction of the embryo.

It was these cells that prompted President Bush to announce his now-famous compromise of Aug. 9, 2001. The federal government — chiefly, the National Institutes of Health — would continue to fund research using only cell lines that existed as of that date.

At the time, Bush announced that there were 61 cell lines available to researchers. Since then, researchers have disputed the actual number of research-ready lines; Ogle contends there are just three, and all three have been tainted by the addition of mouse feeder cells.

Ogle would like to see the unused embryos from the in vitro fertilization process used to create new cell lines. Ultimately, he envisions an immunotype library of 3,000 to 4,000 different lines drawn from across the diverse spectrum of the human race.

Bush’s executive order has met opposition from many patient advocate groups, who see great potential for curing disease and repairing damage using stem cells. A few researchers have gone as far as establishing labs overseas in order to get around the U.S. restrictions.
Though Ogle’s own research focuses mainly on adult stem cells derived from fat and the dura mater — tissue surrounding the brain — he chafes at Bush’s restrictions.

“American scientists are really at a disadvantage because the restrictions in the U.S. don’t exist in Europe or Asia,” he said. “I’m an old athlete. I don’t want the guy up the hall to beat me to something, let alone someone in Europe or Asia.”

Sen. Specter has long backed medical research and has pushed to increase the budget of the NIH. He, too, embraces the potential of stem-cell research.

“Stem cells have such a remarkable opportunity to cure many of the most difficult maladies and diseases which confront America and the world today,” Specter said in a 2000 interview. He has written to Bush urging him to relax the limits; in February, he and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, co-sponsored the Human Cloning Ban and Stem Cell Research Protection Act of 2003, which would prohibit human cloning but preserve and expand “important areas of medical research,” according to Specter’s official Senate Web site.

Specter’s bill has met opposition from Bush and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and has been bottled up in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Ogle has worked closely with staff from the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, which Specter chairs, as well as with both Specter and the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa.
“They’ve both been really outstanding in promoting science. It’s been great working with them,” Ogle said. “[Specter] is actually a brilliant guy. Both he and Harkin have a tremendous technical grasp.”
So far, their attempts at persuasion have made little headway.

“The central problem is that some people believe that the human embryo, no matter what its location, no matter what its destiny, is inviolate,” said Jonathan Moreno, director of U.Va.’s Center for Biomedical Ethics. They are unwilling to sacrifice what they believe to be a human being for scientific purposes, he explained, fearing that to do so would undermine respect for embryos and perhaps escalate abortions.

“It’s all tied into the abortion debate,” Moreno said.

He doesn’t see the anti-abortion forces giving ground. “I don’t think they’re going to be moved,” he said. “It’s not about rationality. It’s about faith.”


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