Stem cell advances should spur study

Imagine a world where diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer can be cured or even eradicated thanks to the miracles of scientific research. Imagine in the same world that paraplegics are treated such that they are able to walk once again. Recent groundbreaking research has shown that human embryonic stem cells may be the key to treating these chronic and often crippling diseases.

Despite the promise of human embryonic stem cell research, however, its progress has been hampered by limitations in federal funding. Furthermore, the lack of funding for human embryonic stem cell research may have a negative effect on an often overlooked aspect of our lives, the economy.

Human embryonic stem cell research has been a polarizing issue, and scientists have had to grapple with an administration that has taken a stance against using government money to fund it because the process of making a human embryonic stem cell line involves destroying an embryo. But this ethical issue has been met head-on by brilliant researchers around the world who have recently uncovered ways to produce human embryonic stem cells without destroying an embryo.

Despite these discoveries, America continues to withhold money for human embryonic research. Stem cell researchers are forced to search for private funding in order to continue their research. This is a major struggle for stem cell researchers, because a vast majority of a research lab’s funds has traditionally come from the government, which offers a more thoroughly outlined system to apply for funding. With private funding, there is no set guideline to apply for funding, and researchers have often had to network outside of traditional means to secure private funding. As a result, more of a researcher’s time is now spent searching for funds instead of being in the lab doing experiments.

The difficulty stem cell researchers are facing in the current climate of stem cell research funding has opened the door for foreign countries, such as Singapore, to lure away America’s premier stem cell researchers. Singapore, with a government-driven economy, has decided that it cannot compete with the emerging markets of India and China in the manufacturing industry and has decided to shift its economy to focus on services, to become a knowledge-based economy. Singapore has recognized that one major scientific patent can mean millions if not billions of dollars for an economy. This has led to the Singapore government’s sanctioning billions of dollars for improving its universities, as well as initiating over 100 infrastructure projects. One of these projects led to the development of the gargantuan Biopolis, a $300 million complex that spans 18.5 hectares. Singapore hopes that it will be a bio-heaven for scientists aiming to conduct human embryonic stem research without the worries of always needing to apply for American funding. Singapore is banking on human embryonic stem cell research and biotechnology to drive its economy for decades to come and, by offering massive tax exemptions of up to 10 years, is trying to entice biotech and pharmaceutical companies to set up research facilities there to catalyze its economy.

Federal funding of scientific research is essential and the definitive driver of scientific breakthroughs. In 2004, 3,014 fewer people died of cancer than in 2003, and for the first time in history, the number of American citizens dying from cancer is declining because of the success of the “War on Cancer” that was started by President Nixon in 1971. Economists at the University of Chicago estimate that a permanent 1 percent decrease in cancer mortality would lead to nearly $500 billion in national wealth for the current and future generations of America.

The potential for human embryonic stem cell research to produce cures for cancers that currently cannot be treated effectively is limitless, and if coupled with ongoing cancer research, it can produce substantial returns on investment with even more promising dividends in the future. For these reasons, funding human embryonic stem cell research is not only imperative from a medical standpoint, but also just good business. Countries such as Singapore are starting to figure this out, and ultimately the question that America needs to be asking itself is not whether human embryonic stem cell research should be fully funded, but by how much.

Han Lee is a Ph.D. candidate in the Genetics Department at the School of Medicine and an MBA candidate at the School of Management.

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