Accessibility links

Interview with Sean Tipton, American Society for Reproductive Medicine - 2003-04-29


VOA's David Borgida speaks with Sean Tipton of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. Mr. Tipton discusses the value and controvery of stem cell research.

MR. BORGIDA
Another fascinating medical issue, also with political and social dimensions, stem cell research. And here to discuss this with us, Sean Tipton of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.

Now, Mr. Tipton, do us a favor, give us a brief primer, what are stem cells and what are their value?

MR. TIPTON
Stem cells are cells that can be precursor cells to every other type of cell in the body. And there are adult stem cells that are found primarily in bone marrow, for example, to help you grow new bone cells. But both the scientific excitement and the political excitement really stem from embryonic stem cells. And it's logical to consider that an embryo. Even at the tiniest stages, when a sperm and egg first get together and you've got two cells, that is going to eventually become every kind of cell in your body. So, it has that capability.

Scientists have learned how to isolate those and grow what is called embryonic stem cell lines, and they are learning now to trick those cells and manipulate those cells into becoming various kinds of tissues. For example, a patient with diabetes, who needs a pancreatic eyelet cell to make insulin, scientists have learned how to make embryonic stem cells turn into those kind of cells.

MR. BORGIDA
So, the more we learn, the more promise there is. But at the same time, it is creating in official Washington, to some degree, some more controversy. Where are we on that?

MR. TIPTON
Well, the first thing is that the subject of President Bush's very first national televised policy speech in primetime television in August of 2001, he declared that embryonic stem cell research would be allowed for federally funded researchers but only on stem cell lines that were already in existence as of August of 2001, when he made that decision. So, you couldn't use Federal funds to create new stem cell lines.

Now, at the time he made that announcement, they said that there were some 70 lines going to be available for research. That number has already been reduced down to 11, and we think there are only really three or four that are actually being used by Federal researchers at this point. So, that policy has been very restrictive, and it has really limited where the science can go.

MR. BORGIDA
And the rationale, of course, for the White House is?

MR. TIPTON
Well, it comes from an embryo. And I think that there are clearly those in this country and others who believe that human life begins at the moment of conception. And I think the question is really, what is the great good and potential that can come from that embryo?

MR. BORGIDA
These are topics that will be discussed on Capitol Hill soon. I understand there are hearings coming up next month to discuss this. Give us a preview of what we might hear.

MR. TIPTON
Well, Senator Specter, who sits on the appropriations committee and chairs in fact the committee that funds the Federal research enterprise, the National Institutes of Health, has announced that he is going to hold hearings in May to discuss the question of whether those restrictions are really hurting the science. And he is specifically going to discuss the question of those stem cell lines that the President has approved all got started on starter cells that came from either mice or bovines, or cows. So, they sat in a culture media which came from some other animal cells, and the FDA has a whole different set of concerns about that. And so it's very difficult for the science to advance under that restrictive policy.

MR. BORGIDA
Let me ask you a general question. We have come into this interview having discussed the issue of SARS and the issue of AIDS and of course stem cell research. As we embarking on a grand new period in scientific research on so many of these issues, are we to see a major progress -- you would think, based on stem cell research and others, but also the lessons we are learning from SARS and the way we are fighting against AIDS -- are we on the verge of a new period of enlightenment about these grand diseases or are we still going to be in a fog with regard to them? I know it's kind of a big question for you.

MR. TIPTON
There is certainly tremendous scientific excitement around the field of regenerative medicine. And that is to be able to use embryonic stem cells for example, or what we learn in the process of doing research on embryonic stem cells, to help people cure themselves; to allow a patient to use one of their own cells and have that in a lab for a while and then turn into a kind of cell that they might need and a tissue that they might need, be that for a spinal cord injury or for cardiac disease -- they can turn them into heart cells. So, on that side, as the population ages and has accidents, regenerative medicine really has enormous potential.

On the other hand, I think that looking at some of the infectious diseases, such as SARS and HIV, I think it will remind us to treat this with an appropriate humility, that we don't know. That's why you call it research, because you have to keep researching for the answers. And it seems like we can make advances over here, but we're going to have to figure some other things out over on the other side.

MR. BORGIDA
Thank you for putting it all into perspective. I speak for myself, but I'm hoping our audience feels the same way. Sean Tipton of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, thanks so much for being our guest. We appreciate it.

XS
SM
MD
LG