Human embryonic stem (ES) cell research will revolutionize how myriad diseases are treated, but it would also have huge ramifications for the trillion-dollar healthcare industry. However, for the past seven years, the progress of human ES cell research in America has been stifled because of the restrictions that have been placed on how public funding can be used.
Recent rhetoric from political leadership has threatened to completely derail the meager progress of human ES cell research in America — many want to stifle the progress of the research by advocating a complete ban on both public and private funding under the belief that human ES cell research has become unnecessary.
Yet the past few years have seen rapid advancement in the field of stem cell research. Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS), which resemble human ES cells, have captured the attention of the public as well as the scientific community. Like ES cells, they apparently can develop into any functional cell type in an organism. The discovery of iPS cells is exciting, but they are by no means mutually exclusive nor do they provide an alternative to human ES research. (The discovery of human iPS cells could not have occurred without the last decade of human ES cell research.)
Still, much work needs to be done before human iPS cells can replace human ES cells. Currently, human iPS cells can only be made by utilizing viruses and overexpressing genes that are often associated with cancers. That is, current iPS cells are unfit to ever be used for therapeutic purposes. Furthermore, there are genomic differences between iPS cells and ES cells that are unaccounted for. Many leading scientists will instead agree that the new iPS cell discoveries are complementary and synergistic and a not substitutive to human ES cell research.
Human ES cells are still the “gold standard” and benchmark for assessing the ability of cells to develop into all the functional cells in an organism. Only human ES cells (and not human iPS cells) have the current potential to eradicate the chronic use of toxic drugs for many diseases and the potential to cure what were once thought to be incurable and grossly disabling illnesses.
Treatments for diseases such as diabetes will be radically transformed by human ES cell research. Such research will make it possible to create transplantable beta secreting insulin cells, eliminating the need for anti-diabetes drugs like insulin. This will have a tremendous impact on not only the way diabetes is treated, but also on the way the $100 billion metabolism market (which includes diabetes drugs) does business.
The importance of human ES cell research to the trillion-dollar healthcare industry cannot be overlooked. America has been instrumental in creating the current healthcare industry, and every major financial institution has invested in it heavily.
Countries like Singapore are realizing the financial potential of human ES cell research, and they have promoted such research by building gigantic publicly funded biomedical research centers.
Therefore, public funding of human ES cell research in America is vital if we want to continue to dominate the biomedical field. Biotech companies based on human ES cell therapies currently find it difficult to raise capital because the horizon in which investors want to see returns on their investment is presently unknown or thought to be too long.
Publicly funding the research is the only way around investor insecurity. Besides, the first therapies that result from human ES cell research are guaranteed to be billion dollar discoveries. Given the importance of the healthcare industry to sustaining America’s now-floundering economy, the nation can not afford to let other countries take the forefront of human ES cell research.
America’s current restrictions already placed on public funding of human ES cell research in America have stifled the advancement of the field for far too long. To stifle it further by promoting a ban on even private funding of the research would be tragic. Human ES cell advancements will happen in Europe or Asia if they don’t happen here. Allowing another country to take the helm would be a monumental mistake, especially if it happens because of premature and erroneous conclusions concerning recent iPS cell breakthroughs.
Throughout world history, advancements in science have been met with public resistance—science will always incite controversy. But the most hotly debated discoveries have often turned out to be the most important, rewarding and lasting. (In recent times, many people thought that cloning genes was controversial, but now undergraduates are conducting this epochal procedure in their biology lab courses.)
As the nation graples with its financial crisis and focuses on how to spend money more shrewdly, here’s an idea: to fund human ES cell research more liberally. Doing so would be a prudent measure that would pay huge dividends in the future.
Diverting a hundred-million dollars of public funds toward human ES cell research would benefit the health and economy of America, unlike certain publicly-funded infrastructure projects that lead to nowhere. Human ES cell research is a bridge to a better economy, a better healthcare system and a better life for all Americans.