American Association for Cancer Research
Submitted to the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services,
Education and Related Agencies on
“The Promise of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research”
September 22, 2010
Margaret Foti, Ph.D., M.D. (h.c.)
Chief Executive Officer, American Association for Cancer Research
615 Chestnut Street, 17th Floor, Philadelphia, PA 19106
Phone (215) 440-9300; Fax (215) 440-9313
The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), the world’s oldest and largest professional organization dedicated to advancing cancer research, represents over 32,000 cancer researchers, physician-scientists, other health care professionals, and survivors and patient advocates. On behalf of AACR, I thank you, Chairman Harkin and members of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, for holding this important hearing on the future and promise of human embryonic stem cell research. The AACR appreciates the opportunity to share its views on this issue.
There is vast potential for stem cell research to improve the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer and many other diseases. Human embryonic stem cell research, in particular, may lead to new biological insights that offer previously unknown avenues for the development of promising new therapies for cancer patients. As stated in our 2005 policy statement on stem cell research , the AACR believes that reasonable, ethical exploration of the full spectrum of stem cell biology is a crucial component of scientific discovery.
The court injunction is a setback for scientific discovery and cancer research
Scientists who were recently given new opportunities under President Obama’s Executive Order  to pursue important research questions using human embryonic stem cell lines could now be stopped in their tracks. The recent decision by the Federal District Court of the District of Columbia to block federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research underscored the instability faced by scientists working in this promising field. The injunction created mayhem for scientists, who in the blink of an eye became unsure whether they could legally continue their experiments funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). A whole cadre of young scientists interested in pursuing this area of science may be discouraged from doing so due to concerns about funding stability. The AACR is deeply concerned that the lack of clarity on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research will significantly affect the ability of the United States to be a leader in this cutting-edge field of science that has real potential to save lives. U.S. scientists already face a distinct disadvantage in this field compared to their colleagues in countries such as Great Britain and Australia with more progressive, yet still ethically responsible, policies. While the injunction temporarily was lifted, great uncertainty remains as the case goes to the appellate court.
Human embryonic stem cell research holds much promise for cancer patients
Stem cell research is part of a multi-faceted approach to understanding the biology of cancer and developing new ways to combat the 200 diseases collectively called “cancer.” Potentially paradigm-shifting research may be developed from embryonic stem cell research, as scientists are just now learning what potential these stem cells hold and how they differ from the less-controversial adult stem cells.
For example, recent scientific discoveries have shown that human cancer cells often display features that are reminiscent of human embryonic stem cells and that the more a cancer cell resembles an embryonic stem cell, the more aggressive its behavior. Indeed, it is only now being appreciated that the initiation and progression of many, if not all human cancers, involves deregulation of the very same genes and pathways that are necessary and responsible for normal human embryonic development. Inappropriate activation of these pathways in an adult cell can overtake its development and drive creation of a tumor.
Early studies in the laboratories of numerous cancer researchers are showing that if these genetic and epigenetic errors are corrected, the growth of the cancer can be slowed or even reversed. However, successful translation of these exciting laboratory discoveries into advances for patient care requires that we better understand the differences between normal embryonic stem cell and cancer biology. To achieve this, it is absolutely imperative that this fundamental research, which has already led to so many significant discoveries, be allowed to continue. This research de facto depends on laboratory-based investigations of human embryonic stem cells.
Another important advancement in cancer research has been the discovery that certain tumors arise as a consequence of genetic mutations in normal adult stem cells. For example, leukemia can arise when mutations occur in normal hematopoietic (blood) stem cells, and brain tumors can arise as a consequence of mutations in normal neural stem cells. The ability to isolate normal hematopoietic stem cells from bone marrow has fueled discovery into the origins of leukemia and is leading to the development of novel therapies to target leukemia stem cells. However, because of the relative rarity and inaccessibility of other adult stem cells, very little is yet known about their normal biology or how they morph into cancer cells. Cancer researchers are harnessing the pluripotency and regenerative power of embryonic stem cells to generate these rare adult stem cells in the laboratory.
As a renewable source of neural, neural crest, pancreatic, liver and other tissue-specific stem cells, embryonic stem cells are—for the first time—providing cancer researchers with the tools to study differences between normal adult stem cells and cancer stem cells. Already these studies are generating novel insights into tumor biology and identifying potential therapeutic targets that could be exploited to selectively kill cancerous stem cells.
The benefits of this research are applicable especially to the pediatric population. Given that fully two-thirds of childhood cancer survivors are afflicted with long-term side effects from cancer treatments that negatively impact their health and well-being, it is imperative that we strive to develop new therapies for pediatric cancers that spare normal stem cells and developing tissues. The promise of human embryonic stem cells as tools for scientific discovery provides hope for these children and for all patients who are afflicted with brain tumors, bone and soft tissue sarcomas, neuroblastoma, malignant melanoma, pancreatic, liver and other solid tumors that all too frequently resist current therapies.
AACR supports sound, ethical and responsible stem cell research policies
The AACR believes that human embryonic stem cell research must be conducted in accordance with policies that are sound, ethical and responsible. As with any scientific investigation, explorations of stem cell biology must be pursued in strict accordance with such policies to safeguard the welfare of research donors and recipients. Individuals donating biological materials for research—including somatic cells, gametes and embryos—need to give their fully informed and voluntary consent through a mechanism uncompromised by financial incentive.
The NIH has exerted significant effort to ensure that this promising research, like all NIH research, is conducted in a manner consistent with established ethical principles. After a thorough and transparent process involving extensive public input, the NIH put forth guidelines last July that stipulate the assurances and supporting documentation that must accompany requests for NIH funding for research using human embryonic stem cells. The guidelines also expressly prohibit funding for research projects using lines derived for the purpose of research through processes such as somatic cell nuclear transfer, in vitro fertilization or parthenogenesis. Neither Obama’s executive order nor the NIH guidelines permit federal funding to be used for the generation of new stem cell lines.
In considering its support for research utilizing human embryonic stem cells, the AACR recognizes and shares the universal sentiment that the human embryo deserves respect. Research involving human embryonic stem cells must serve important research aims that cannot be reached by other means. Moreover, we agree with the internationally-accepted 14-day limit on the developmental age of blastocysts from which the embryonic stem cells are derived.
Although research using human embryonic stem cells raises many important ethical considerations, the majority of Americans believe that the potential for research to yield significant advances in patient care warrants responsible conduct of research. A 2008 Time magazine poll showed that nearly three-quarters of Americans support embryonic stem cell research using cells derived from embryos that will be discarded following in vitro fertilization procedures . Enforcing strict guidelines with appropriate oversight will ensure that such research is conducted according to the highest ethical standards.
The AACR believes that stem cell research can be conducted in a manner consistent with established ethical principles, and strongly supports responsible explorations of the full spectrum of stem cell biology, including the use of human embryonic stem cells, for meritorious scientific research and therapy development.
The AACR has been moving cancer research forward since its founding in 1907. The AACR and its more than 32,000 members worldwide strive tirelessly to carry out its important mission to prevent and cure cancer through research, education and communication. Responsible embryonic stem cell research holds tremendous promise to deliver new therapies to patients suffering from cancer, as well as many other diseases such as heart disease, Parkinson’s, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, HIV/AIDS and spinal paralysis.
 American Association for Cancer Research. Responsible Exploration of the Full Spectrum of Stem Cell Biology is Essential to the Advancement of Cancer Research. Position Statement, 2005.
 On March 9, 2009, President Barack H. Obama issued Executive Order (EO)13505 Removing Barriers to Responsible Scientific Research Involving Human Stem Cells.
 SBIR Research poll for Time magazine. June 2008. Accessed September 8, 2010.