Proponents of embryonic stem cell research must view the future with great hope. After all, on Monday, President Barack Obama reversed President George W. Bush's decision to shut the door on such research in August 2001 when he restricted federal research funds to a limited number of embryonic stem cell lines.
One might also think that with all the talk about the promise of human embryonic stem cell research since 1998 (mouse embryonic research started in 1981), patients would be seeing some benefit using these stem cells by now. After all, stem cells have now been used to treat human patients for a variety of diseases. Keon Penn was treated for sickle cell anemia. Stephen Sprague was treated for leukemia. Dennis Turner had his Parkinson's symptoms reduced for five years. Doug Rice received a stem cell treatment for his heart disease. Barry Goudy has gone without multiple sclerosis symptoms for over five years, and 13 patients with type 1 diabetes have gone off of their insulin shots. Jacki Rabon walked again with the aid of braces after being treated with stem cells for a spinal cord injury. However, the stem cells used to treat these and thousands of other patients in the recent past use cord blood or adult stem cells—not human embryonic stem cells.
Why haven't embryonic stem cells been used to treat any patients? Is it a lack of funding? Hardly. Under President Bush, from 2002 to 2008 roughly $300 million of federal funds went to human embryonic stem cell research. States like California—which passed a $3 billion, 10-year bond program—and the private sector also fund this kind of research. But still, this line of inquiry has produced no treatments for any diseases.
In truth, there are major, inherent biological obstacles to any potential use of embryonic stem cells for human therapies. These are serious, long-standing scientific problems, well known and nowhere close to being solved. The very characteristic so prized by some scientists, their flexible (or pluripotent) nature, makes these cells difficult to control for actual clinical use; the result is that they tend to form tumors, even reverting to uncontrolled growth after they have been specialized. And because these are from genetically different embryos, they can be rejected by a patient's immune system. To skirt this problem, some even advocate the highly controversial prospect of human cloning.
President Obama stated he opposes reproductive cloning, meaning the birth of human clones, but he clearly supports cloning human embryos for experiments. Canada, France, Germany, and the United Nations are right to prohibit human cloning for destructive research as well as reproductive purposes. I agree with their argument that it will be virtually impossible to prevent baby cloning once we take the first step down that path.
The problem of human research cloning is also practical. Human cloning requires women to risk their health by donating huge numbers of eggs. Because of the problem of obtaining women's eggs, some researchers are trying to mix human cells with animal eggs in efforts to get human-animal hybrid embryos. President Obama's executive order could end up funding research on stem cells taken from clones or even human-animal hybrids.
What's the difference? Proponents of embryonic stem cell research complained that Bush's policy was too restrictive, that he should have allowed funding for research on cells derived from destroying so-called leftover embryos (ones that parents don't plan to implant) instead of just those stem cell lines that existed in 2001. President Obama goes well beyond funding embryonic stem cell research with "leftover" embryos; he would fund this kind of research with cloned embryos or human-animal hybrid embryos. The problem for some is that even this is not far enough!
The ink on Obama's order was barely dry before politicians started calling for repeal of the Dickey-Wicker amendment, first signed into law by President Bill Clinton. This provision prevents federal funding for any research that harms or destroys human embryos, whether created through in vitro fertilization, cloning, or other means. Apparently, some folks feel it's not enough to provide dollars for stem cells from embryos or clones; they now want taxpayer money to create and destroy the embryos in the first place!
What to do about this controversy?
What if you could create embryonic stem cells without using embryos? Well, researchers can. Since November 2007, Japanese and U.S. scientists have used reprogramming to turn normal cells into embryonic-like stem cells that are identical to embryonic stem cells, without using human embryos, eggs, or cloning. Researchers call these cells induced pluripotent stem cells. They function like the human embryonic variety, can be created for disease-specific lines, and would genetically match the patients. How significant is this alternative? When the creator of Dolly the cloned sheep, Ian Wilmut, turns away from human cloning to pursue this kind of research, you know you're on to something big.
Federal resources are vast, but they are limited. Federal funding should prioritize stem cell research on what is benefiting patients now. One piece of legislation everyone can agree to is that sponsored by Reps. J. Randy Forbes, a Virginia Republican, and Daniel Lipinski, an Illinois Democrat. It would direct funding to build on the successes over the past years to the benefit of patients.
Putting patients first is a strategy we can all embrace.
- Tell us what you think: Should Stem Cell Research Be Permitted?
Tony Perkins is president of the Family Research Council, promoting "the sanctity of human life in national policy."