Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Stem Cells - The Straight Dope

On August 9, 2001, George Bush announced that he would allow federal funding for stem cell research but that the funding would be limited to the 78 stem cell lines that had already been created. The reason for this limitation was that the stem cell lines were created through the destruction of embryos, which, to some, is synonymous with the destruction of human life.

The Associated Press elaborates on the importance of stem cells and the controversy:

Embryonic stem cells are master cells that form during the early days after conception and can turn into any tissue in the body. Many scientists hope to one day harness them to grow replacement tissue to treat diabetes, spinal cord injuries and other diseases. But because culling stem cells kills the embryo, which many religious groups oppose, Bush signed an executive order in August 2001 limiting research to the existing lines.

As Ron Reagan said in his Democratic Convention speech,

...these embryonic stem cells, they could continue to replicate indefinitely and, theoretically, can be induced to recreate virtually any tissue in your body. How'd you like to have your own personal biological repair kit standing by at the hospital? Sound like magic? Welcome to the future of medicine.

Yesterday, on the third anniversary of Bush's announcement, First Lady Laura Bush defended her husband's policy:

The president's policy makes it possible for researchers to explore the potential of stem-cell (research) while respecting the ethical and moral implications associated with this research.

Wow, she makes the president's policy sound so sweet and benign. What's the catch? According to John Kerry's website:

Fewer Cell Lines Available Than Originally Promised. The August 2001 stem cell policy allegedly made available more than 60 suitable stem cell lines to federally funded researchers. However, this has proved to be false. Many of the cells have turned out not to be genuine stem cell lines or turned out to have no scientific value. As of today, there are only 19 lines available - less than a third of the number originally promised.

And according to the Washington Post:
At least 128 new self-replenishing colonies of human embryonic stem cells have been created since Aug. 9, 2001, according to Harvard Medical School stem cell researcher George Q. Daley. Among them are 17 colonies grown at Harvard with private funds -- colonies that are said to be more easily maintained than the Bush-approved cells; nearly 50 new colonies grown in Chicago, including 10 bearing the genetic signatures of diseases that scientists want to study; and several new colonies created in Singapore that, in contrast to all 21 Bush-approved colonies, have never been contaminated with mouse tumor cells. They help keep the cells alive but might transmit viruses that could make a patient sicker.

In other words, private funding is moving the research forward but the rationale behind the president's policy is already outdated. Imagine the further advancement that could be achieved if the US were to join with other industrialized nations in federally funding this groundbreaking research. And under a Kerry presidency, we will. Proving yet again that there would be striking differences between a Kerry/Edwards administration and a Bush/Cheney administration, John Kerry announced the following in his radio address on Saturday:

We're going to lift the ban on stem cell research. We're going to listen to our scientists and stand up for science. We're going to say yes to knowledge, yes to discovery and yes to a new era of hope for all Americans.

John Edwards elaborated yesterday on what his and John Kerry's policy would entail:

Scientists would be able to use federal funds to isolate and study stem cells from fertility clinic embryos no longer wanted by parents -- embryos, Edwards said, "that would otherwise be discarded or frozen indefinitely." Consent would be required of the parents. And proposed experiments would have to pass muster with an ethics committee at the academic or research institution where the work would be done.

Edwards also reiterated the Democratic ticket's support for "therapeutic" cloning, which involves the creation of cloned human embryos as a source of stem cells. He rejected the notion that embryo cloning was synonymous with human cloning, which he said he and Kerry oppose. Edwards promised an increase in funding for embryonic stem cell research to at least four times the $25 million spent by the federal government in fiscal 2003.


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