Click here for the basics of the embryonic stem cell research issue.
LINCOLN — The results of last week's election pose a new risk for embryonic stem cell research at the University of Nebraska, but the risk does not appear imminent.
Five of the eight members of the new board that takes office in January are on record opposing the use of such cells in medical research, but none has disclosed plans to stop it.
Opponents say the research is unethical because embryos were destroyed to provide the cells used for study.
Proponents say scientists need to study embryonic stem cells as part of their search for life-saving cures. They also note that scientists don't actually use embryos in their research. Rather, they purchase and use cells grown and replicated from an original embryonic sample.
Last week's election marked the most significant overhaul of the NU Board of Regents in more than 40 years. Since an expansion of the board to eight members in 1970, no more than two seats have changed hands in any election.
This year's three-seat turnover resulted from Regents Jim McClurg of Lincoln, Randy Ferlic of Omaha and Chuck Hassebrook of Lyons not seeking re-election.
Their replacements include Jim Pillen, 56, of Columbus, and LaVon Heidemann, 53, of Elk Creek, both endorsed by Nebraska Right to Life for their opposition to embryonic stem cell research. And both replace regents who supported the research.
The third new regent, former Omaha Mayor Hal Daub, ran without the support of Nebraska Right to Life because he did not pledge to vote to change the research policy. He said current state law and federal regulation answer the issue. Daub replaced an opponent of the research.
At the NU Medical Center, embryonic stem cell work represents a small but important part of the campus's wider research endeavor, said Jennifer Larsen, vice chancellor of research.
Four med center researchers are using embryonic stem cell lines, accounting for a total of about $4 million in research funding over multiple years. Total research funding for the med center in 2011-12, by comparison, was about $89 million.
Far more research at the med center involves stem cells obtained from adults, but Larsen said the embryonic stem cell lines are needed to help understand how adult cells can be reprogrammed to perform new functions within the body.
University of Miami research soon to be published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that donated adult stem cells can be used to reverse congestive heart failure. Work at the University of Louisville has shown that heart patients' own stem cells can be reprogrammed to repair tissue damaged by heart attack.
Meanwhile, the med center will become a site early next year for clinical trials using adult stem cells to treat stroke victims.
Another consideration for NU is that imposing stricter restrictions than required by state and federal authorities would send a negative message about NU research, Larsen said, making it harder to recruit strong scientists and graduate students.
It does not appear that the next Board of Regents is prepared to take up the research question in the immediate future.
Board policy gives NU President J.B. Milliken and each of the eight regents authority to propose agenda items.
Regents who oppose the research, however, cite other priorities for the next term.
Regent Bob Phares of North Platte, who voted in favor of restrictions in 2009, said that, to his knowledge, veteran board members have no plans to revive the research debate.
“It's not on my radar,” he said. “Right now, we have things that are of higher priority.”
Regent Howard Hawks, another who voted in favor of restrictions in 2009, said he would not try to revive the issue. He said embryonic stem cell research should be conducted according to the law.
Regent Tim Clare, who is expected to become board chairman in January, listed his priorities as improved graduation rates, the NU budget, economic development and more job and internship opportunities for students.
The board last considered the research issue after President Obama took office in 2009 and expanded the research by allowing more lines of embryonic stem cells to be authorized for use in federally funded studies. Because state law and university policy mirror the federal rules, federal changes automatically apply to Nebraska.
Clare and three other regents introduced a resolution that proposed limiting Nebraska to the smaller number of cell lines approved under President George W. Bush. But that effort fell short when the regents deadlocked in a 4-4 tie.
If the Obama administration expands the research again, board action would be required to prevent such broader rules from applying in Nebraska.
Julie Schmit-Albin, director of Nebraska Right to Life, said she doesn't yet know how hard her organization will push the regents to revise its policy, unless there is a further broadening of federal research policy.
“Whatever is pursued, if it's pursued, will have to be well thought out and agreed upon by the pro-life regents — and obviously all of them, because they don't have a vote to spare,” she said. “It largely depends on what the pro-life regents would want to do.”
Both Pillen and Heidemann have been noncommital about whether they would push to change existing policy. They said they spent more time on the campaign trail discussing agricultural research, rural economic development and rising tuition costs than stem cell research.
“If it comes up, everybody knows where I'll be, but it's not my thought to push the agenda,” said Heidemann.
Pillen said he first wanted to hear from other regents during an orientation session later this month.
“I want to use my ears for a little while and speak at an appropriate time,” he said. “I'm newly elected and I'm excited to serve, but speaking before I listen just wouldn't be appropriate in my mind.”
The basics: Embryonic stem cell research
Stem cells are the foundation cells for every organ, tissue and cell in the body. They are like a blank microchip that can be programmed to perform particular tasks.
Embryonic stem cells, which exist only at the earliest stage of embryonic development, are capable of making any type of cell in the body. Under the right conditions, they can replicate themselves indefinitely. Scientists are working to understand how these cells develop into more than 200 different kinds of human cells.
Adult stem cells are present in developing fetuses, newborn infants and children, as well as adults. They are more specialized than embryonic stem cells, with the ability to make just one or two kinds of tissue, such as blood and immune system cells, brain or muscle cells. Adult stem cells can be reprogrammed to behave like embryonic stem cells. Reprogrammed cells are called induced pluripotent stem cells.
Nebraska Right to Life and other “pro-life” groups oppose research using embryonic stem cells because an embryo must be destroyed to obtain the initial sample of cells. Opponents maintain that taxpayers should not be asked to pay for research that relies on destroying early human life. They say equal results can be achieved by studying other stem cells.
Proponents say stem cell research could lead to cures of life-shortening ailments, such as heart disease, diabetes, brain damage and spinal injuries. Studying embryonic stem cells helps researchers understand how adult stem cells can be reprogrammed.
Scientists do not take new stem cells from embryos each time they perform an experiment. Rather, they use “lines” of replicated cells. The cells are “immortal” in that, once the line is established, no future embryos are needed to replenish them.
Former President George W. Bush limited stem cell research to embryonic stem cell lines in existence in 2001. President Barack Obama in 2009 authorized the use of additional lines, developed from fertility clinic embryos, with written permission from donors, and that otherwise would have been destroyed.
Sources: University of Nebraska Medical Center website on embryonic stem cell research; New York University law student David Yin, who writes for the Stone Soup blog; 2009 statement from Richard M. Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
NU BOARD OF REGENTS | EMBRYONIC STEM CELL RESEARCH
Timothy ClareDistrict 1
Led 2009 effort to restrict the research. Cites higher priorities in coming year.
Howard HawksDistrict 2
Voted to restrict research in 2009. No plans to revisit the policy.
Jim PillenDistrict 3
Campaigned opposing the research but wants to talk to other regents first.
Bob WhitehouseDistrict 4
Voted in 2009 to expand the research.
Lavon HeidemannDistrict 5
Would vote against the research but doesn't plan to raise the issue.
Kent SchroederDistrict 6
Voted to expand the research in 2009.
Bob PharesDistrict 7
Voted to restrict research in 2009. Says the issue now is not on his “radar.”
Hal DaubDistrict 8
Satisfied with existing state and federal limits on the research.
NU BOARD OF REGENTS
The three new members joining the NU Board of Regents:
HAL DAUB JR.
Profession: lawyer, former Omaha mayor (1996-2001), former member U.S. House of Representatives (1981-89)
Replaces: Randy Ferlic
Notable: Reputation for tenacity and strong political connections from City Hall to Washington, D.C. Gave up Nebraska Right to Life endorsement because he would let stand current policy allowing embryonic stem cell research.
Profession: farmer near Elk Creek, Neb., state senator (2004 until January)
Replaces: Jim McClurg
Notable: Detailed knowledge of NU budget from service as chairman of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee. Helped craft funding packages for a comprehensive cancer research center in Omaha and a new veterinary diagnostic laboratory in Lincoln. Lacks a college degree.
Profession: president, Columbus-based Pillen Family Farms
Replaces: Chuck Hassebrook
Notable: Pillen's company is one of the largest hog confinement operations in the nation. Grew up five miles from Hassebrook and attended the same high school. Played defensive back for the Huskers in the 1970s.
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