If Adult stem cells had the same potential as embryonic stem cells, we wouldn't be having this conversation. They don't, so why the hell are they being mentioned? They aren't relevant except to make excuses for moral and political stupidity and lack of moral logic. To compare the "life" value of a mass of cells so small it could barely even be seen on this screen with a real live, suffering human, is vile, cruel, and morally indefensible.
Time to End the Embryonic Stem Cell Ban
Bush's flimsy funding policy is hurting promising research and real people By Simon Smith Betterhumans Staff 4/2/2004 5:57 PM
It's been more than two years since US President George W. Bush addressed the nation
to announce his embryonic stem cell policy. On August 9, 2001, from The Bush Ranch in Crawford, Texas, he teasingly began by noting the importance of federal funding. Then he revealed his hand, citing the "highest standards of ethics" in announcing strict federal funding limits. "Research on embryonic stem cells raises profound ethical questions, because extracting the stem cell destroys the embryo, and thus destroys its potential for life," he said.
The compromise: The government would fund research on 78 embryonic stem cell lines that already existed. There would be no money for new lines. "This allows us to explore the promise and potential of stem cell research without crossing a fundamental moral line, by providing taxpayer funding that would sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos that have at least the potential for life," Bush said.
As we look back and around, it's strikingly apparent that this address is a milestone in the Bush administration's politicization and misuse of science, announcing one of its most regressive, deceptive and damaging policies. (The address is further tainted by the fact that in it Bush introduced the world to his new bioethics council, as well as its new chairman, Leon Kass, who has been criticized widely for his ultraconservative position on everything from living longer to eating ice cream in public.)
Almost immediately, scientists attacked the policy. Turns out that few of those promised stem cell lines were available, and probably none could be used for human trials. But the ban has stood, despite being a massive failure that smells of purposeful deception and has severely hurt not only promising medical research, but real people with real suffering. Meanwhile, private money is funding work on embryo research, private companies are getting wide-ranging patent rights, states are legislating to override the policy and, ban or no ban, embryos from fertility treatments are being destroyed anyway.
While research on adult stem cells is progressing, embryonic stem cells are still far closer to use in regenerative treatments. Besides being less potent?a recent study stifled hope by finding that they can't replenish damaged heart muscle?adult stem cells are also harder to work with. Those from bone marrow or blood, for example, are highly variable, difficult to culture and rarely tolerated by a recipient's immune system when transplanted from a foreign donor.
Leaving aside stem cells from cloned embryos ("therapeutic cloning," as its called, may prove financially prohibitive even if not legally prohibited, since it's so customized), stem cells from any embryos could soon provide treatments for diseases ranging from diabetes to Parkinson's. Human embryonic stem cells can be cultured indefinitely and appear to provoke no immune response in recipients?somehow, the immune system doesn't recognize them as foreign, as it does with adult stem cells.
In a recent study, for example, Richard Burt from Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois and his colleagues reconstituted bone marrow and blood cells from embryonic stem cells even in genetically mismatched mice. If the finding, to be reported in The Journal of Experimental Medicine, holds true for humans, people wouldn't need genetically matched human bone marrow donors to fight leukemia, immune deficiencies and autoimmune diseases. A single line of embryonic stem cells could be cultured to provide treatments for many sufferers.
Recognizing such promise in embryonic stem cells, many countries are encouraging research with government oversight. In 1990, for example, the British Parliament created the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to oversee embryo-related research and clinics, and later stem cell and cloning research. While few other countries have such organizations, many have taken a similar stance on the legality?and ethics?of embryonic stem cell research. China, Japan and Singapore even have regulations for embryonic stem cell research that allow therapeutic cloning while banning reproductive cloning. Canada's recently passed Bill C-6, which in its patchwork slapped-togetherness is by no means a model for anyone, at least allows the extraction of stem cells from excess embryos created for fertility treatments.
Stop the insanity
The US could be a leader in stem cell research. This year's budget calls for the National Institutes of Health to receive about US$28 billion. Few countries, and no private companies, could match the kind of money that it could throw at real embryonic stem cell research?if it were allowed. And by funding the research, it could provide oversight and transparency.
Instead, the stem cell ban has created an environment in which private companies can purchase tremendous intellectual property for little money while they pursue research in secrecy. In his excellent book Merchants of Immortality, Stephen Hall notes that the Bush ban paved the way for entrepreneurs to perform a "free-market override of the congressional funding ban" that "completely transformed the technological landscape."
Hall notes, for example, that the ban gave Menlo Park, California-based Geron a huge amount of power over the future of stem cell research. "It positioned Geron to amass seemingly dominant commercial rights in the field," he says. Geron made an initial investment of as low as US$30,000, Hall says, that "would have potentially purchased a fabulously large patent estate for a relatively modest sum." This gave the company exclusive commercial rights to embryonic stem cell treatments for the heart, nervous system, liver, pancreas, blood-forming and bone-forming system. If a researcher used the company's cells to find a disease cure, it could claim the commercialization rights and sue anyone who tried to bring the cure to market.
Make no mistake, the Bush ban hasn't stopped embryonic stem cell research. Besides private companies stepping in, several states, including California, have created or are considering creating legislation to keep various forms of embryonic stem cell research legal, including therapeutic cloning. And universities have begun setting up privately funded stem cell clinics.
All the ban has really done is slowed research, reduced government oversight, given private companies a nice gift, diminished information sharing and transparency and all but guaranteed that the US won't be a leader in stem cell treatments. And for no good reason, because excess embryos from fertility treatments are being destroyed anyway. Despite the Christian Right's attempts, there simply aren't enough people who want to adopt an embryo. Not only that, there are some couples who actually want their excess embryos used for research.
Certainly, the Bush administration has a lot on its plate, what with Iraq and Osama and an upcoming election. But it should take a few minutes to show some real leadership, admit a big mistake and reexamine a policy that is hurting real people with real diseases.
To this end, the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation recently initiated a "Letter to President Bush" campaign showing bipartisan support for the government to revisit its stem cell ban.
Alas, if Bush doesn't listen, maybe John Kerry will.