Stem Cell Research Is a Key Priority for New Administration
BioWorld Perspectives Contributing Writer
Editor's note: Ilene Schneider, a freelance writer and public relations consultant specializing in biotechnology and health care, is based in Irvine, Calif.
A new administration in the White House could mean a new lease on life for the life sciences. President-elect Barack Obama has pledged to invest in the physical and life sciences as soon as possible.
Especially significant is Obama's commitment to lift restrictions on providing federal money for embryonic stem cell research, as long as the parties involved adhere to government regulations concerning safety and ethical issues. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also has expressed interest in going ahead with legislation in the first 100 days of the new Congress if more than an executive order is needed.
The evident commitment from Washington could boost interest and investment in firms that have been struggling to obtain research financing for years. Scientists, companies working on treatments based on stem cells, and investors are rightfully excited.
Effects of the Stem Cell Funding Ban on U.S. Research
Because of the federal ban on stem cell research, the U.S. is far behind other countries in the scientific pursuit of stem cell knowledge and products. In November, for example, Japanese researchers reported they had created, for the first time, functioning human brain tissue from stem cells taken from human embryos. Israel and Australia are making progress as well. Now American embryonic stem cell researchers can assert their leadership and, more importantly, help save more lives and improve the quality of life for people suffering from a variety of diseases.
Embryonic stem cells are unspecialized cells that possess the power to transform themselves into any tissue or organ in the body, which could give them therapeutic power for a wide range of diseases. Some researchers believe that their adaptability could lead to cures for genetic illnesses or regeneration of damaged human tissue. If scientists could control them, they could direct regenerative therapy, possibly enabling a diabetic's pancreas to begin to produce insulin. Stem cells, directed to differentiate into specific cell types, could provide a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat diseases including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
The flexibility of embryonic stem cells, researchers say, makes them preferable to more specialized adult stem cells. However, the controversy that has erupted over their source human embryos has made the cells a terrible business proposition. During the Bush administration, federal money for research on human embryonic stem cells was limited to those stem cell lines, or families of constantly dividing cells, that were created before August 9, 2001. Federal dollars could not be used on research with cell lines from embryos that were destroyed from that point forward. However, federal regulations do not restrict embryonic stem cell research using state or private funds.
Turning Scientists' Attention Elsewhere
Because of the lack of federal government support for embryonic stem cell research, commercial investors have stayed away from the endeavor. Over the past five years the National Institutes of Health has awarded $186 million in grants for embryonic stem cell research, as opposed to the $1 billion it has allocated to scientists studying "adult" stem cells from sources such as skin and blood. Consequently, American companies found it difficult to continue their research on embryonic stem cells.
Since the Bush administration banned further federal funding of embryonic stem cell research in 2001, states have wrestled with the issue. Michigan voters just amended the state constitution to allow Michigan's scientists to derive human embryonic stem cells without fear of criminal prosecution. The amendment enables fertility patients to donate excess embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics, a practice that had been illegal in Michigan. Voters in Colorado rejected Amendment 48, which would have declared a fertilized egg a person with legal rights and could have resulted in a ban on stem cell research. In 2006 Missouri voters approved steps to widen stem cell research, while in 2007 New Jersey rejected a bond issue for $450 million in research. In 2004, California voters approved spending $3 billion to fund 10 years of research.
Still, scientists turned their attention elsewhere. Unable to find funding for embryonic stem cell research, they began to work with adult stem cells. Some research groups created stem cells from grown patients, then reprogrammed them to be "pluripotent," meaning they could grow into any type of body tissue. Such cells can help scientists to study how diseases develop, but their therapeutic potential is unclear. Now some scientists are concerned that advances in adult stem cells may have left the impression that the embryonic variety is unnecessary.
Opinions of Stem Cell Opponents and Supporters
The opponents of stem cell research have been vocal, saying that life begins at conception, even if it happens in a test tube. They want to "fight it and offer the ethical alternative," Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) told the Associated Press. When stem cells are harvested from four- or five-day-old embryos, the procedure kills the embryo, opponents explain. In addition, they cite the advances in treatment achieved with adult stem cells.
On the other hand, supporters say that 400,000 embryos stored in fertility clinics eventually will be destroyed anyway and that people should be allowed to donate them for research that could help others. The cells come from embryos just five days after fertilization. The embryos contain about 100 cells that have not yet differentiated into more specialized cells. Scientists can work with these cells to engender stem cell lines that can be maintained in an undifferentiated state or be guided to become specific types of cells. Supporters point out that the full potential of embryonic stem cell research has not been tapped because of the existing federal policy.
By promoting an expanded, federally supported stem cell research program with a strict code of conduct, the new administration will encourage greater participation of American scientists in this field. It will let other countries know that the U.S. is committed to being competitive in advanced biomedical research. The president-elect's support for biological research will give life science companies an opportunity to focus their attention on innovative research areas that will benefit people all over the world.
Published: December 4, 2008
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