Stem-cell researcher finds unusual
ally in GOP leader
Roy Ogle lobbies for expansion of research guidelines
by Tom Cogill
scientist Roy Ogle envisions an immunotype library of 3,000
to 4,000 different cell lines from a diverse spectrum of the
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
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
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
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
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
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.”