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Can't stem this tide
Developments this past month surrounding stem cell research have been nothing short of astounding. First came news from South Korea that researchers there have successfully cloned patient-specific stem cells, cell lines that were genetic matches to donor patients. This advance is a fundamental step if stems cells are ever going to be used for the vast array of potential therapies researchers envision.
While scientists from research institutions around the world hailed this latest advance – and admitted surprise at how quickly the South Korean researchers have shown results in their stem cell program – another remarkable event was percolating in the halls of the U.S. House of Representatives. Mere days after news broke of the South Korean research, Congress passed a bill that would essentially lift the White House ban on NIH funding for the creation of new stem cell lines. Though the voting margin of 238-194 was far short of the votes needed to override a promised presidential veto, the passage in the House was remarkable in that it marked the first direct challenge to the president's 2001 ban on federal funding for new research using embryos that had not been destroyed prior to 2001. Furthermore, the House bill received more than a handful of votes from "pro-life" representatives, when the White House has clearly delineated and cast stem cell research as a moral and ethical issue as opposed to a scientific one.
Far be it for me to argue morals and ethics, but what is becoming increasingly clear is that the climate for conducting stem cell research in this country has brightened since the nadir of President Bush's 2001 ban. The biggest blow to this policy came with the passage of California Proposition 71, a state sponsored initiative that essentially supercedes the federal prohibition on stem cell research. That vote was called "an incredible milestone" by John Reed, M.D., Ph.D., president and CEO of The Burnham Institute in La Jolla, Calif. Incredible, he said, because for the first time voters in a single state were willing to override national policy in an area where politics now mingled with the scientific agenda.
The formation of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine via the passage of Proposition 71 sent ripples throughout the United States. New Jersey, for instance, the first state to create a publicly funded institute for stem cell research, has made a push to keep up with California by moving forward with an existing plan that calls for roughly $150 million in funding to create a stem cell research center with another $230 million for specific research grants.
But these work-around state laws, while important to kick-starting the embryonic stem cell research engine in selected states, simply aren't going to get it done in the long haul. Ten years from now, when California has spent its $3 billion, no one knows if there will be other money forthcoming. Budgetary uncertainty in New Jersey may also mean that $380 million might not be available for another year-and-a-half, if at all. The only real, long-term solution is for there to be a national policy – a compromise, perhaps, that allows newer stems cell lines created outside the United States to be used for research here. Perhaps I'm just naïve and don't know the true weight of this political football, but that could be one possible solution.
Even those benefiting by states' stem cell initiatives spin a cautionary tale. Shirley Tilghman, a professor of molecular biology and president of Princeton University, speaking at the inaugural conference hosted by The Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey this past November, said "no one would argue that it is sound public policy for individual states to hold referendums on funding for specific areas of scientific research. The success of U.S. biomedical science has benefited from a priority-setting process at the NIH in which scientific opportunities are judged against one another, with peer review determining the best science to support."
Meantime, while the United States wrestles with embryonic stem cell research as a political issue, other countries like South Korea, India, China and others race ahead unfettered with their research programs. Or as a recent story in The Economist put it: "America's loss is South Korea's gain. Unlike many Americans, up to and including the president, Korean scientists—and the authorities that support them—do not wring their hands in agony about experimenting on tiny clusters of cells that might, in other circumstances, grow into people. They just get on with it."