Stem cells and the ballot box

Stem cells and the ballot box

In August 2001, President George W. Bush boxed himself into a corner by curtailing federal support for human embryonic stem (ES) cell research (see First Base, July 2003 Bio·IT World, page 6). By contrast, Sen. John Kerry has been uncharacteristically unequivocal in his support of ES cell research. But for all of the medical and economic upside, some advocates of ES cell research are hurting their cause by grossly exaggerating the benefits and trivializing the surrounding ethical issues.

At the Democratic National Convention, Ron Reagan, son of the late president, envisioned a world in which diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson's disease are cured by ES cell therapy: "How'd you like to have your own personal biological repair kit standing by at the hospital?" he wondered. "Sound like magic? Welcome to the future of medicine."

For now, however, Ron Reagan's utopia is more science fiction than fact, and may be deluding "stem cell tourists" visiting China and South America in a desperate quest for unproven cures for cancer and other illnesses.

Reagan also dismisses concerns about the trivialization of life, telling CNN's Larry King: "We are talking about cells, undifferentiated cells, in a petri dish. No fingers, no toes, no brain, no spinal cord, no feelings, no pain, no nothing ... just cells."

A similar insouciance appears in the language of Proposition 71 -- the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative -- that Californians vote on next month, authorizing US$3 billion in bonds over 10 years for ES cell research. The bill refers to human embryos as "surplus products of in vitro fertilization treatments."

This trivializes the complex decision that couples face when choosing the fate of frozen embryos. More constructive would be to point to studies showing that about 50 percent of couples in that position agree to donate surplus embryos for research, including the extraction of ES cells.

ES economics

The stubborn stance of the Bush administration, which has limited researchers' access to some two-dozen ES cell lines, is inviting other countries to take the lead. Last February, Hwang Woo-suk and Moon Shin-yong from Seoul National University in South Korea produced a human ES cell line from a cloned blastocyst -- the first example of somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT, or "therapeutic cloning").

In August, the British Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) granted a one-year license -- the first of its kind in Europe -- to University of Newcastle upon Tyne researchers Alison Murdoch and Miodrag Stoj-kovic to use SCNT to derive ES cells. HFEA chair Suzi Leather announced that after weighing "all the scientific, ethical, legal, and medical aspects of the project," her agency granted the license because "this is an important area of research and a responsible use of technology."

Meanwhile, the British Medical Research Council is putting $25 million into a stem cell institute, has created a national stem cell bank to facilitate cell line distribution to researchers, and has also helped set up the International Stem Cell Forum, an open-access data registry. Last month, researchers at King's College London produced an ES cell line carrying the cystic fibrosis gene mutation, a potentially invaluable resource to model the fatal disease.

While Bush defends his 2001 stem cell ruling on moral grounds, his wife Laura pragmatically reminded Larry King that it restricts only federal support. "There is private funding" for ES cell research, she said, alluding to the foundations that helped create the Harvard Stem Cell Institute in April. And soon, states may get directly involved. In California, celebrities and philanthropists, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are putting up millions of dollars in support of Proposition 71. Passage of that bill could do more for stem cell research than any presidential decree.

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