Date: July 1st, 2005
The following editorial is submitted by Daniel Perry, President of the Coalition for the Advancement for Medical Research (CAMR)
President Bush will disagree, but the House of Representatives has handed him a gift for his second term: a chance to update his Administration’s stem cell policy in a way that would earn him bi-partisan praise for returning American scientists to the forefront of this fast-moving medical frontier.
The recent House vote, which garnered a sizeable majority including 50 Republicans, expands the current federal policy on embryonic human stem cell research. If approved by the Senate, which is generally expected, federal dollars would flow to U.S. scientists to study new embryonic stem cell lines ethically derived from discarded embryos created as a by-product of fertility treatments.
Already this is setting records for bi-partisan cooperation in the House of Representatives, something all too rare in recent times. The impressive majority vote who lined up behind a bill sponsored by Republican Congressman Michael Castle of Delaware and Democratic Representative Diane DeGette of Colorado, included lawmakers of all stripes – Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, representatives from all parts of the country, and with divergent views about abortion.
Conceivably President Bush could be the biggest beneficiary of this rare bi-partisan confluence on Capitol Hill, if only he could manage to get himself in front of this parade. Public opinion surveys on stem cell research consistently show strong majorities favor an expanded federal role in stem cell research. Polls routinely find overwhelming support in favor of stem cell research among pro-life Republicans, self-identified Bush voters, Roman Catholics as well as other people of faith.
The House vote could also lay the foundation for changing a static policy into a dynamic one.
Nearly four years ago, George Bush unveiled a compromise policy on stem cell research in his first Presidential television address to the nation as its President.
His policy sought to balance ethical concerns and the best scientific information then available. But science has a way of continuing to evolve. This requires public policies governing science to change and grow, or else become hardened into irrelevancy.
Many expected in 2001 that under the President’s policy embryonic stem cell colonies already in existence would be sufficient to explore the far-reaching potential now raising hopes among scientists and patients alike.
But it didn’t work out that way. It turned out that only a handful of “approved” stem cell lines are actually available for study by American scientists and all are contaminated by contact with animal cells. Many new and more malleable human stem cell lines have been developed since 2001, some through private research funding in the U.S. and many more through governmental efforts in other countries.
Very recently scientists isolated the first human embryonic stem cell lines using nuclear transfer techniques specifically tailored to match the genetic profiles of patients with specific diseases. When this research if confirmed by others, it could go a long way to overcoming immune rejection of transplants which currently leads to the tragic death of patients dying while awaiting scarce donations of organs and vital tissues.
Of course, the research that garnered headlines around the world was done overseas in Korea, with a lone American collaborator but not a dollar of American public funds. Here is yet one more indication that President Bush could earn America’s gratitude if our scientists are given a chance to get back in the global stem cell game. An unforeseen consequence of federal research restrictions has been to diminish the traditional role of the National Institutes of Health in funding research, and also for enforcing accountability for protection of patient rights, and setting legal and ethical standards. The National Academies of Science have now stepped up to suggest some guidelines to prevent scientists from crossing delicate moral and ethical boundaries. But those strictures won't have the force of law unless the current federal policy is expanded.
Meanwhile California, New Jersey, Wisconsin and other states are taking steps to supplant the federal role in these matters. The remarkable move by individual states to fill the stem cell research vacuum is worthy of praise, but it is no substitute for a supportive federal policy in matters of medical research.
Even NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni has told Senators that the fragmentation of stem cell research among the states could undercut collaborations between scientists operating under different laws and regulations.
Seen in this light, passage of the Castle/DeGette stem cell bill in the House could be the beginning of a remarkable political gift to the President and to his party. Granted, President Bush’s threat to use his veto power casts a big shadow across the future of this research. But circumstances may look very different by the time a potential compromise might reach his desk.
More important than the politics, the ultimate success of a more generous research policy would be a gift of hope to the millions of Americans threatened by diabetes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, ALS, spinal cord injury, heart disease, cancer, and many other diseases caused by damage to the body’s cellular machinery. And if that brings a ray of hope that bi-partisanship is not entirely gone from American politics that would be a pretty nice gift too.
The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR), is a non-partisan organization comprised of nationally-recognized patient organizations, universities, scientific societies, foundations, and individuals with life-threatening illnesses and disorders, advocating for the advancement of breakthrough research and technologies in regenerative medicine - including stem cell research and somatic cell nuclear transfer - in order to cure disease and alleviate suffering. For more information on CAMR, visit the website: www.camradvocacy.org.