Sunday, August 15, 2004

The (Political) Science of Stem Cells: Laura Bush: "You might not know about it from listening to the news lately, [but] the President also looks forward to medical breakthroughs that may arise from stem cell research. Few people know that George W. Bush is the only President to ever authorize federal funding for embryonic stem cell research."

"As Mrs. Bush gently reminded her audience in Pennsylvania this week, far from banning embryonic stem cell research, George W. Bush is the first President to expand federal funding for it. The nearby table shows that, as a result of his decision, federal funding went from zero in 2000 to nearly $25 million today—and this doesn't include the many tens of millions more being spent by the private sector. As Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson points out, the supply of embryonic stem cell shipments available is today greater than the demand.

"In other words, this is not, as Ron Reagan characterized it during his prime time slot at the Democratic convention, a battle between 'reason and ignorance.' It's an argument about taxpayer money and how to draw the lines around it."

"The issue is federal subsidies. The need for a Presidential decision arose from an appropriations rider passed by Congress in the mid-1990s forbidding federal funding for any research that creates, injures or destroys human embryos.

"The President's answer was that there ought to be no restrictions on the private sector but that federal subsidies should be limited to lines that had already been harvested and should not be used to encourage the destruction of embryos. In short, it was a reasonable middle ground. It's worth noting that other countries, such as Germany, Ireland and Austria, ban even the private sector from creating embryos for stem cell research.

"The potential for embryonic stem cells is that they are malleable and can differentiate themselves into needed cells. That gives them tremendous potential, but it also presents a liability because we can't yet control what these cells will turn into. In one animal study, a fifth of the mice injected with embryonic stem cells developed brain tumors.

"Which helps explain why we still have not had a single human trial for embryonic stem cells. And it means that political claims that cures for diabetes or Parkinson's are just around the corner are cruelly raising false hopes.

"Meanwhile there is another alternative we don't hear much about in the headlines: adult stem cells. Unlike embryonic research, adult stem cells do not get us into questions about the destruction of human life. In addition, a report in the journal Nature this summer suggests that adult stem cells may have a broader differentiation potential than previously thought."

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