Stem Cell Conference in Houston

Several scientists from the United Kingdom are in Houston to discuss stem cell research and the controversies surrounding things like reproductive cloning. Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson reports.

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The regulations in the United Kingdom are widely different from those in the U.S. UK researchers can essentially perform unlimited embryonic stem cell research. In the U.S., funding is blocked for the creation of new stem cell lines and scientists have access to 22 lines around the world. Scientists from both countries are holding a conference at Rice University's Baker Institute where they are examining the complexities of ethics and public policy. Dr. Stephen Minger is the director of the Stem Cell Biology Laboratory at King's College London. He says the U.S. needs to regulate stem cell research in a more cohesive manner.

"If you are dependent on National Institute of Health funding, there are very strict guidelines about what you can and cannot do. Basically you can only work with cell lines which were derived before August 2001. But if you have private funding, there are no restrictions literally whatsoever in most states. So for instance, in a number of states in the U.S. you can buy embryos, you can make embryos, you can buy gametes and then make embryos soley for the purpose of making stem cells, and you can do somatic cell nuclear transfer for not only for therapeutic purposes but you can do full-blown reproductive cloning."

State Representative Beverly Wooley was among the conference speakers. Wooley has tried to pass several bills regarding stem cell research. She says Texas needs legislation to would provide uniform guidelines.

"My concern is Houston and Texas being left behind and our medical community suffering from the loss of our scientists and our medical doctors when they go to other states, because they are allowed to do the research that they are interested in and can provide such great resources for medical needs."

States like California have much less restrictive laws regarding stem cells. And several European countries along with the UK are more permissive in their research. Wooley says that could lead to research tourism, where scientists flock to those places. She says the U.S. must find a way to balance the ethics and controversy of stem cells with the need to remain competitive in biomedical fields.

"It's very, very complicated and to the -- most people it's -- you are creating human life, you are destroying other human life to creat human life. And it's -- these arguments are valid but it's got to be this medical community that's interested in it that gets out and educates people on just what they're talking about. And it's a difficult process."

Conference organizers say the goal of the event is to raise awareness that for the first time in modern history, the U.S. could lose its leadership role in biomedical research. Laurie Johnson Houston Public Radio News.

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