President Obama's executive order to lift restrictions on embryonic stem cell research is coming up against legislative blockades in states around the country.
Legislators in Georgia and Oklahoma are considering bills that would limit, if not outright prohibit, scientists from working with human embryonic stem cells in their research to cure or reverse medical conditions, including diabetes, paralysis and Parkinson's disease. In Texas and Mississippi, lawmakers are considering blocking state funding for that research, mirroring existing laws in other states.
"I just think it's immoral to create life and destroy it in the name of science," said Georgia State Sen. Ralph Hudgens. "In Nazi Germany they did experiments with human beings. I don't want to see that done here."
Were the bills to pass, they could face legal challenges, said John Robertson, a law and bioethics professor at the University of Texas School of Law.
"It's unclear at this point. It will really depend on how the statutes are written," he said. "The courts have struck these laws down in some cases in terms of vagueness."
Earlier this month Obama reversed restrictions ordered eight years ago by President Bush that limited federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to 21 specific stem cell lines created prior to August 2001.
The National Institutes of Health is currently working on new guidelines that could open up federal funding for research on close to 600 stem cell lines.
"You've got a lot better lines to work with right now," said Sean Tipton, director of public affairs for the American Society of Reproductive Medicine. "It's not a quantity question as much as a quality issue. The Bush policy locked us into old technology."
At their essence, stem cells are the construction workers of the human body. Embryonic stem cells, drawn from human embryos, can morph into varying tissue types, forming bones, organs and skin.
In a laboratory, an embryonic stem cell can be induced to form into every one of the more than 200 cell types found in the human body. Stem cells, in theory, might be triggered to rebuild a damaged spinal cord or form insulin-producing pancreatic tissue in a diabetic.
Scientists extract stem cells from the live human embryos that are discarded at fertility clinics. Pro-life activists oppose the process, because it is fatal to the embryo. Supporters say that the embryo will be discarded anyway, and harvesting its stem cells can provide medical benefits.
A new method recently pioneered in Spain, in which stem cells are extracted from embryos that have already died, could bridge that divide, said Dr. Don Landry, chairman of the Columbia University Department of Medicine.
"We need to be concerned not just with how scientists feel but how patients feel," he said. "There's a lot of division on this in the world and the country."
The bill in Oklahoma, which is by far the most restrictive, would make it a misdemeanor for a scientist to work with embryonic stem cells in the state. It received bipartisan support in the statehouse, where it passed by a vote of 82-6 with 13 abstaining, and it is expected to be on Gov. Brad Henry's desk shortly.
Henry, a Democrat, has not said whether he will sign the bill.
Oklahoma politicians have passed into law in recent years several measures designed not only to reduce the abortion rate in the state, but also to establish a legal point at which life begins.
At the forefront of the movement is State Rep. Mike Reynolds, a Republican.
"I ran for office because I believe life begins with conception," said Reynolds, who is a Southern Baptist. "The ultimate goal is to change the mindset of the public. Many people are deceived into believing an embryo is just a piece of flesh."
The bill in Georgia, which would allow scientists to work with embryonic stem cells provided that the creation of the stem cells lines takes place in another state, has passed the state Senate but could be held up as the legislature deals with the state's budget crisis, Hudgens said.
Both bills have generated fierce opposition from scientists and medical activists, who say politicians like Reynolds are turning stem cells into a criminal issue and threatening the future of scientific research in their states.
"It's a very different thing to say that a state's not going to pay for something than to say they're going to make something illegal," Tipton said. "A research scientist at Georgia Tech who decides to experiment on her own eggs could be locked up under this law."
Similar efforts to establish a definition of life are under way in other states, including Montana and South Dakota, Tipton said.
While politicians argue the morality of embryonic stem cell research, most of the buzz in the scientific community right now revolves around induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells, which are adult skin cells effectively reprogrammed into acting like embryonic stem cells.
In 2006 a Japanese scientist announced he had successfully accomplished this feat with the skin cells of mice, and within a year he and U.S. scientists had done the same with human skin cells.
The potential is huge, not only in that iPS cells forego the need for human embryos, but that they can be designed to match a patient's own DNA, said Dr. John Kessler, a neurologist at Northwestern University.
"You don't have to worry about using potent drugs to suppress the immune reaction," he said. "It's not just the, 'gosh, let's bypass the ethical issue.'"
Many politicians who oppose embryonic stem cell research have been jumping on the iPS bandwagon, pushing a technology most everyone in the scientific community agrees could be the next frontier.
"This is what we should be focusing on," Reynolds said. "There has not been one benefit with embryonic stem cell research that hasn't been found with these adult stem cells."
But questions persist about the safety and viability of iPS cells, and for the time being embryonic stem cells remain the standard. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved the first clinical trial using embryonic stem cells to study their potential in treating spinal cord injuries.
"We all fondly hope (iPS) cells will live up to our expectations and we don't have to worry as much about using human embryonic stem cells," Kessler said. "It's going to be years before we have clear ideas about their precise potential."