Monday, May 3, 2010

KUMC executive appointed by Obama

President Barack Obama released yesterday the list of scientists he has appointed to serve on the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethics. Among the names on the list is Barbara Atkinson, who serves as the executive vice chancellor of the University of Kansas Medical Center, and is a strong advocate of embryonic stem cell research and human cloning (SCNT).

While serving on the commission, Atkinson will have the opportunity to advise Obama on bioethical issues.

“I am grateful that these impressive individuals have decided to dedicate their talent and experience to this important commission,” Obama said in a press statement. “I look forward to their recommendations in the coming months and years.”

Atkinson has been known to disagree with the stance taken by conservative Kansas legislators regarding human embryonic stem cell research and human cloning. In 2005, Atkinson testified on behalf of KUMC against a piece of legislation that sought to ban human cloning.

Although Atkinson testified that she did not object to the banning of cloning that would create the birth of a human clone, she objected to the bill because she thought it would result in a restriction of embryonic stem cell research in Kansas — most notably through the usage of human cloning, also known as somatic cell nuclear transfer. This process creates an embryo for the purpose of research, and the embryo is then destroyed during the course of the research.

Atkinson argued that she was opposed to what she called "reproductive cloning," which she defined as the process to create the birth of a human clone, and rather she wanted to use "therapeutic cloning."

Both "reproductive" and "therapeutic" cloning use SCNT, which is extracting a somatic cell's nucleus and transferring it to an egg that has had its nucleus removed.

Either way, somatic cell nuclear transfer leads to embryonic stem cell research, which is highly controversial.

Pro-life advocates argue that embryonic stem cell research is unethical because it destroys human life, although embryonic stem cell supporters such as Atkinson say that the creation of an embryo does not create life unless that embryo would be implanted into a woman’s uterus.

Though embryonic stem cell research is highly controversial, adult stem cell research is not. Adult stem cell research utilizes cells from a person’s own body, such as skin cells or cells from an umbilical cord, and is a process successfully used regularly in current medicine.

Atkinson made it obvious during her testimony in the House Federal and State Affairs Committee in 2005 that she believed embryonic stem cell research has greater potential than its non-controversial counterpart.

“I guess I’d say that most people think that the work’s been done on mature stem cells. They’ve had 50 years of research doing it,” Atkinson said. “There are, as I said, the major cures for lymphoma leukemia with bone marrow transplants. Also, the rest of the cures are relatively small genetic diseases that you can do particular manipulations on and cure. But people think the real promise is not any longer on the adult stem cells. It really is with early stem cells.”

Atkinson butted heads with pro-life legislator Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, while providing testimony in the House committee.

During testimony, Atkinson refrained from using the terms “embryo,” “embryonic” stem cell research and “adult” stem cell research. Instead, Atkinson referred to an embryo as a “blastocyst,” an embryonic stem cell as an “early” stem cell and an adult stem cell as a “mature” stem cell.

Kinzer noted that in reports he had read from James Thomson, the scientist who created the first embryonic stem cell line, Thomson used the term 'embryo' and Kinzer asked why Atkinson was refraining from the using the word.

“The thing that’s confusing is, they seem to have used a completely different vocabulary than what we’re hearing used here,” Kinzer said. “In other words, these early papers that we have — they talk about embryos. They say embryo.”

Atkinson responded by stating that there was no change in the science but that the alteration occurred because of controversy.

“There is a distinction — or a bit of a dispute — about where you call it embryo, or where you begin to call it embryo,” Atkinson said. “But scientists would say that cells in a Petri dish, that came from a blastocyst, that came from the inner cells of a blastocyst, that it is cells in a cell culture. It’s not a life.”

Kinzer then questioned how a cell — which Atkinson referred to as a blastocyst — with 46 chromosomes was not a life. Atkinson responded by stating that she didn’t believe the embryo would be considered a life in the Petri dish, but would rather become a life once implanted into a woman.

Dr. David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council, said Atkinson’s choice of language in describing stem cell research was misleading.

“I certainly can’t respect that use of terms because it is scientifically inaccurate and it clouds the debate rather than pointing to real facts,” Prentice told Kansas Liberty. “What it does, in fact, is mislead the public and the policy makers with some mild terms that don’t reflect real science.”

Prentice said Atkinson’s stance on human embryonic stem cell research and human cloning makes her appointment one of concern.

“Barbara Atkinson has been very bad on pro-life issues,” Prentice said. “She has testified in favor of cloning and embryonic stem cell research and has even promulgated and perpetuated misleading information on cloning.”

Although Atkinson will likely be an advocate of expanding embryonic research, Prentice said that another newly appointed member, Daniel Sulmasy, could provide some balance to the group.

Sulmasy is a University of Chicago researcher who Prentice said is a good promoter of ethical stem cell research.

“He has been a very good pro-life advocate, and it is good to see him on there, but I just don’t know how lonely he will be,” Prentice said.

Prentice said it appeared as though the objective of Obama’s panel of experts on stem cell research differed from the panel former President George W. Bush had appointed in that it appeared to be more of a “rubber stamp” commission.

Rep. Arlen Siegfreid, R-Olathe, also said he had concerns with Atkinson serving on the national panel given her “strong support” of embryonic stem cell research. Siegfreid questioned whether Atkinson would relinquish her advocacy for embryonic stem cell research now that a non-controversial alternative is available, which is referred to as induced pluripotent stem cell research, or iPS.

These iPS cells are created by taking human cells, such as a skin cell, and then adding a factor, or factors, that reprogram the cell to behave as if it were an embryonic stem cell. The process is non-controversial, alleviates the need for embryonic stem cells, and iPS cells are less likely to be rejected from a person because they can be created from the person’s own skin.

The process was discovered by Japanese researcher Shinya Yamanaka, who originally was an advocate of embryonic stem cell research. Yamanaka told a New York Times reporter he was motivated to create the embryonic stem-cell replacement after realizing that there was “such a small difference” between embryos and his daughters.

“I hope that Dr. Atkinson will be very honest about the fact there is no further need for embryonic stem cell research,” Siegfreid told Kansas Liberty. “If we had exerted as much energy into developing cures with adult stem cells as we have with trying to legalize embryonic stem cells, we might be further along with treating diseases right now.”

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