The State of Stem Cell Research

When President Bush announced his very federalist compromise to the stem cell research debate in 2001, I thought it was a pretty good move. Although I support stem cell research, I can accept that some people see it (or at least the branch dealing with embryonic stem cells) as a grave sin. I can even understand their position, although I don’t share it. The compromise simply made clear that the federal government would not fund research into embryonic stem cell research. It did not, however, limit adult stem cell research, nor state or private investment in embryonic stem cell research. Here is the meat of the policy recommendation in Bush’s remarks to the nation:

As a result of private research, more than 60 genetically diverse stem cell lines already exist. They were created from embryos that have already been destroyed, and they have the ability to regenerate themselves indefinitely, creating ongoing opportunities for research. I have concluded that we should allow federal funds to be used for research on these existing stem cell lines, where the life and death decision has already been made.

Leading scientists tell me research on these 60 lines has great promise that could lead to breakthrough therapies and cures. This allows us to explore the promise and potential of stem cell research without crossing a fundamental moral line, by providing taxpayer funding that would sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos that have at least the potential for life.

I also believe that great scientific progress can be made through aggressive federal funding of research on umbilical cord placenta, adult and animal stem cells which do not involve the same moral dilemma. This year, your government will spend $250 million on this important research.

Now, with the new moves on Capitol Hill over the “Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005” (HR 810), the subject has again been brought to the fore. For my part, I supported California’s Proposition 71, which set aside $3 billion for 10 years to establish the California Stem Cell Research Institute. Since the subject matter was close to what I studied in college, and since the finances looked alright, I voted for it, despite my usual skepticism of government research, with the hope that government can serve as a leader, although by no means the sole player. Given that there is an “exit strategy” of sorts, perhaps those tapped to run the institute would feel more pressure to deliver the goods.

My only real beef with this is that the University of California is going to be involved. Their less-than-stellar record in recent years in managing the Los Alamos Nuclear Labs has gotten to the point where the University must now compete with private industry doesn’t reassure me. Still, private industry may yet take some cues, and then develop that beyond what the institute can do on its own.

In this spirit, a recent Wall Street Journal editorial painted a status commentary:

So what’s happened, research-wise, since 2001? Given the rhetoric of some of the President’s critics, you might think the answer is nothing. In fact, federal funding for all forms of stem-cell research (including adult and umbilical stem cells) has nearly doubled, to $566 million from $306 million. The federal government has also made 22 fully developed embryonic stem-cell lines available to researchers, although researchers complain of bureaucratic bottlenecks at the National Institutes of Health.

At the state level, Californians passed Proposition 71, which commits $3 billion over 10 years for stem-cell research. New Jersey is building a $380 million Stem Cell Institute. The Massachusetts Legislature has passed a bill authorizing stem-cell research by a veto-proof margin, and similar legislation is in the works in Connecticut and Wisconsin.

Then there’s the private sector. According to Navigant Consulting, the U.S. stem-cell therapeutics market will generate revenues of $3.6 billion by 2015. Some 70 companies are now doing stem-cell research, with Geron, ES Cell International and Advanced Cell Technologies being leaders in embryonic research. Clinical trials using embryonic stem-cell technologies for spinal cord injuries are due to begin sometime next year.

Hardly the sort of return to the Dark Ages that anti-Bush activists would have you believe.

Thus, the recent passage of the bill in Congress suggests that, having been given a chance to think about it, the public is indicating that it might just be worth it to allow embryonic stem cell research to be funded along with other sorts of stem cell research. The balance is still delicate, but there would appear to be an emerging lead in favor of de-restricting federal funding. The question then, of course, will become one of the wisdom of the funding. That is, how much of it will go toward work already done by private industry, thus culminating in an indirect subsidy?

First, though, the bill must get past the veto threat. I sincerely hope President Bush doesn’t exercise his veto here, but I wouldn’t get too worked up about it if he did.

[Cross-posted at Between Worlds]

4 thoughts on “The State of Stem Cell Research”

  1. Demi, great post.
    I too think Bush forged the best compromise that any executive could.

    The whining from the margins seems fueled more by his decision not to extend central government nannyism to fund embryonic stem-cell research, despite the real ethical constraints that a majority of our countrymen observe.

    Having said that, this field needs to be explored. I’d like to see private funding chase this research, and the full application of our patent laws to guarantee that whichever university/corporate partnership risks it will realize the full profit from it’s capitalization.

    Remember John Edwards’ crass comment about Christopher Reeves (as in, he’d be walking if only Evil Bush…)? I long ago shelved the advocates for Federal government funding of this controversial research as opportunistic social-ists. They are only playing on the heart strings of our health-conscious culture to expand the purvue of the central government.

  2. Given his veto record to date, I wouldn’t get too worked up about the prospect of Bush vetoing this bill. Why would he want to spoil a perfect record of signing every bill he promised to veto?

  3. I had a good chat the other day with a guy who is working on his PhD at UIC. He works on adult stem cells. He thinks the advantages to adult stem cells are way bigger than with embryonic stem cells because you can grow tissue from a person’s own cells and implant it and not have the problem of rejection. They are working on mind-boggling stuff — repairing crushed spinal cords, for example.

  4. Its ironic that the conspiracy-minded far left(moderate?. e.g. Bill Moyers citing “1984” implying nascent totalitarianism in the US) does not take issue with governmental involvement in technology that potentially creates and “farms” life.

    1984? More like Brave New World. I’d like to see Moyers give that speech.

    These issues are best left to the private sphere.

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