stem cell battle coming to an end?
There was a major medical story this week that you may have missed. For the second time ever (check out here for the first time) stem cell implantation (aside from bone marrow transplants) yielded clear, albeit modest, scientifically replicable results when two patients with spinal injuries in Zürich recovered measurable sensation below their injury sites. Although there remains years, possibly even decades, worth of research to conduct before stem cell treatments become widely used as therapies for maladies such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and macular degeneration, 2012 has definitely witnessed some huge milestones in the field.
These advancements that have taken place despite the efforts of a decade of mostly right-wing opposition to research.
The opposition, of course, has been to research involving the use of human embryos. Groups that oppose the research claim that any research that destroys a fertilized embryo destroys a human life. Fair enough, but in considering the ethics of embryonic stem cells research, one has to consider not only what happens to embryos if they were are used for research, but also what happens if they are not used.
Embryos that are used in stem cell research are the “leftover” embryos from in-vitro fertilization procedures and are routinely discarded as “medical waste” or, more rarely, frozen and stored. Of the stored embryos, several hundred are believed have been adopted and born as “snowflake children” — several hundred out of several hundred thousand. In other words, far more than 99 percent of embryos used in research would have been thrown away or stored in perpetuity in freezers.
Human embryonic stem cells were only recognized for their therapeutic potential in the 1990s. Shortly after the discoveries over the nineties, in 2001, President Bush largely eliminated federal funding for embryonic stem cell research with the stroke of a pen and spent the rest of his presidency defending against attempts by Congress to override his decision.
In 2009, one of President Obama’s first actions was to end the Bush policies on stem cell research and the National Institutes of Health very quickly authorized hundreds of millions of dollars of new research. However, federal funding was again shut down in August 2010 by a federal judge in response to a lawsuit filed by a scientist who had, three years earlier, gone on a hunger strike after being denied tenure at MIT. The courts restored funding in April 2011, with an appeals court upholding the ruling 2-1 only last week.
Much of the new stem cells research involves non-embryonic cells that can be taken from adult tissue. These are exciting new avenues and the results from the Zurich trials involved such cells. However, because the new types of “induced pluripotent” cells attempt to replicate the biological mechanisms of embryonic cells, the embryonic cells have and continue to be an important and integral component of research. In other words, the research needed to move away from embryonic cells is not possible without the study of such cells today.
Public support for embryonic stem cell research remains high — over sixty percent throughout the past decade. While most Democrats and some Republicans have consistently supported research, the official Republican party stance that began as a support for a total ban on public and private research in its 2004 platform shifted to a simply a ban on federal funding in the 2008 and recently announced 2012 platforms.
Yanking federal funding again once more on embryonic stem cell research, or even placing it in doubt, would, of course, represent a disaster that would likely set back research for years as it did during the Bush years. Like many of his positions, it is unclear how Mitt Romney stands on the issue, although there is reason to be optimistic that he would avoid the Bush approach if he were to win office. In what seem to be carefully parsed phrases, Romney has, in the past come out against “cloning” “embryo farming” and “the creation of human life for research purposes.” None of these involves how embryos are currently used for typical stem cell research, and there is no evidence that the last two things even occur — in this country at least. Since his wife has multiple sclerosis, it is possible that Romney may feel more personally touched by the issue as well.
Only four years ago the embryonic stem cell debate was one of those divisive cultural issues that got a lot of airtime in the election — cultivating most memorably in Rush Limbaugh’s Michael J. Fox imitation. We have seen very little talk of stem cells this election which makes me hope that the threats to federal funding have finally ended and the science can proceed in a more stable environment and yield potentially life changing, and life saving, applications for millions — no matter who wins the election. But I’m not taking any chances with my vote on an issue that means more to me than any other.