Or, the stem cell debate Stem cell research has become a hot topic in the presidential campaign. So what is stem cells research about? Cells are the basic building blocks of the human body. Hundreds of different specialized cell types in the adult body perform very specific functions for the tissue or organ they compose. Like the body itself, cells have a limited life span and eventually die. Most of the body’s cells divide and duplicate throughout life, but some cells either don’t replenish themselves or cannot replace themselves fast enough to combat disease.
Stem cells are the ancestors of all the specialized cells in the body. They are self-renewing, and, under certain conditions, can develop special functions such as the beating cells of a heart or the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. “Adult” stem cells are found in bone marrow or brain tissue, and their development is generally limited to the cell types they come from.
In 1998, biologist James Thompson of the University of Wisconsin discovered how to isolate stem cells from embryos donated from in vitro fertilization clinics (IVF). He then grew them into colonies of cells, called cell lines. Thompson found that these primitive cells could divide indefinitely in culture, and they are “pluripotent,” meaning able to morph into virtually any cell type in the human body.
Scientists believe the potential for these pluripotent cells is amazing, and may lead to a wide range of cures: Parkinson’s, diabetes, cancer, spinal cord injuries, kidney disease, multiple sclerosis, macular degeneration, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and more. The catch is this: To extract the stem cells the embryos have to be destroyed.
Before the 2000 election, George Bush said he opposed funding any research “destroying living human embryos.” Proponents of the research maintain that stem cell research is the true pro-life position. As Morton Kondracke wrote, “Not only is there potential to cure the diseases of people who will otherwise die, including children, but the embryos are … destined for destruction.”
Since 1996, the Republican Congress has blocked federal funding of research that destroys human embryos. The Clinton Administration identified a loophole: As long as the National Institutes of Health didn’t fund the destruction of embryos, it could fund promising research on cells resulting from that destruction. On Aug. 9, 2001, President Bush announced that he would allow funding, but only on the 78 cell lines already developed where “the life-and-death decision has already been made.”
However, there are actually only about 20 cell lines and many have been mixed with mouse cells, compromising their therapeutic potential. Coming from IVF clinics, they also provide a very limited sample of a genetic diversity. For example, in lines obtained from white, middle- and upper-income patients, genes for sickle-cell anemia, a disease predominantly affecting people of color, probably don’t exist.
To ultimately cure diseases, researchers would need disease-specific cell lines, obtained through the process sometimes called “therapeutic cloning.” This way scientists could develop stem cell lines specific to certain diseases, like cancer, leading to the development of drugs and other preventive therapies.
The scientific term “somatic-nuclear transfer” is often used to avoid the knee-jerk reaction to the term “cloning.” Bush and his allies want to criminalize that process out of the fear that it could lead to reproductive cloning.
Nancy Thomson, MD, writes, “In reality, reproductive cloning experiments performed on animals resulted in a 99 percent failure rate. There is a vast difference between implanting a dividing cell in a womb and the nuclear [transfer] method in which the process is halted after a few rounds of cell division and the embryo is a ball of a couple of hundred cells in a petri dish.”
Does federal funding really matter? Apparently, yes. Private and state research money is scarce. And public funding offers greater opportunities for regulatory oversight and public scrutiny. But the restrictions have severely slowed medical breakthroughs and left the United States lagging behind other nations. Indeed, other countries like Great Britain, South Korea and Australia are progressing with embryonic stem cell research. The Boston Globe predicted that over 100 lines would be available around the world by the end of 2004, none of which will be funded by the U.S.
Public awareness makes a difference, too. There has been a broad-based shift in sentiment on the issue in the last two years. Now, a majority of Americans who have heard a great deal about the issue believe it is more important to conduct stem cell research that may result in medical cures than to not destroy the potential life of human embryos.
This November, California citizens will vote on a stem cell ballot initiative, supporting both embryonic stem cell and “research cloning.” Proposition 71 would “license a stunning $3 billion public investment in stem cell research shattering the Bush limit on available lines in the process.”
There has always been a lot of politics in research funding. It is often based on the clout of the advocates. But the stem cell research debate is only part of the escalating criticism of the Bush Administration’s scientific policymaking. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “The scale of the manipulation, suppression and misrepresentation of science by the Bush Administration is unprecedented.” This behavior has serious consequences for all Americans.