Stem Cell Research: Is Progress Delayed Progress Denied?
Aug. 10, 2001 -- The Bush administration's decision to allow strictly limited federal funding for stem cell research fits the classic definition of a compromise: a decision that makes nobody happy.
Although the ruling gives the go-ahead to research using existing stem cell lines derived from embryos that have already been destroyed, it puts the lid on public support for investigation using cells derived from newly-created embryos -- such as those discarded daily by fertility clinics -- and restricts scientists to working with currently available stem cell lines.
Those limitations could hobble scientists who are just beginning to explore the breathtaking possibilities of embryonic stem cells -- immature, undeveloped cells that have the ability to evolve into any of the roughly 220 different cell types in the body, depending upon how they are manipulated in a developing embryo or in a lab dish.
"The president indicated that there are 60 [stem cell] lines in existence that can presently be used. To my knowledge, no one is aware of the manner in which that number was determined or where those lines are located. If in fact the field continues its explosive growth, 60 or even 600 lines may be too restrictive, and that may seriously impede progress," says Ira Black, MD, chairman of neuroscience at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway, N.J.
In addition, Black notes, despite what the president claims, those cells lines are not necessarily immortal, "and 60 now could be far fewer than in a very short period of time. I think we're all concerned that if we run out of resource material, there's not going to be any science to be done while patients are languishing paralyzed, in bed, in wheelchairs, with diabetes, having heart attacks, having strokes, spinal cord injury, etc."
In fact, many of the cell lines are likely to be in private hands, and the owners -- drug companies, biotech firms, and other corporations -- may be unwilling to part with proprietary property or share trade secrets.
"Private industry doesn't publicize. They have their trustees and their shareholders to answer to, so they have to aim what they're doing at what's most lucrative -- not necessarily what's going to be driven by the needs of society. So even if the president is trying to do the right thing for society, he has focused it on the interests of private business and big money," says Fred Roisen, PhD, professor and chairman of anatomical sciences and neurobiology at the University of Louisville, Ky, in an interview with WebMD.
Roisen, Black, and other researchers say that while they're grateful Bush didn't follow through on his campaign pledge to ban embryonic stem cell research entirely -- despite broad public support for such research -- they aren't breaking out the champagne either. In fact, the limits imposed on embryonic stem cell research could delay or even prevent discovery of new treatments for Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and spinal cord injuries, they contend.