Date: May 1st, 1999
Imagine a world without debilitating costly diseases such as Parkinson's, heart disease and diabetes. It may be possible because of research into human embryonic stem cells. These tiny biological units pack a very big punch. They have unlimited potential to divide, retain the characteristics of "young" cells and become almost any tissue in the body.
Recently, researchers announced they had successfully cultivated human embryonic stem cells. Conceivably, they could "direct" them to replace diseased cells and offset the medical and financial impact of several major illnesses.
But that's just the beginning. Within 20 years or even sooner, stem cell research could produce:
- Heart muscle cells formed to treat heart disease
- Endothelial (blood-vessel forming) cells to treat atherosclerosis
- Dopamine neural cells to treat Parkinson's disease
- Pancreatic cells used to treat diabetes
- Cartilage-forming cells used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis
- Skin cells used to treat burns and help wounds heal
Furthermore, by giving researchers a permanent, stable source of human cells for drug screening and toxicology studies, stem cells also figure to speed development of drugs which could benefit millions of sufferers from catastrophic illness.
Unfortunately, politics overshadows this promise. Private funding alone supports stem cell research because a Congressional ban forbids federal funding of research pertaining to embryos. Though key Senate leaders have indicated that they do not believe stem cells fall under the ban, and the head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has expressed qualified support for stem cell research, Congressional critics plan to oppose NIH funding for stem cell research.
"It is so important that this research goes forward," according to Dan Perry, Executive Director of the Alliance for Aging Research. "It's one of the keys to the future of healthy aging in this country--aging where millions and millions of people are spared pain and disability, and society is not burdened with a huge national medical bill."
The Alliance is confident it can champion the cause of stem cell research provided the public lends its support. "People must let Congress know how they feel," Perry stresses. "With the graying of America, whether or not we're a vital, capable society in the coming years could very well hinge on this issue."