Consider the following situation: thousands of Americans are afflicted with a deadly disease. Although scientists propose strategies for treating and preventing this disease, the president, heavily influenced by religious special interest groups, refuses to provide these researchers with the necessary funding. Politicians in California lobby for greater public understanding of the issues at hand but are largely ignored by the administration.
If this situation sounds like recent news, you might be surprised to learn that these events took place in 1982. The disease in question was AIDS, and scientific efforts to understand and treat it were stymied by lack of support from the Reagan administration, which believed that AIDS was a moral issue rather than a public health problem. By the time President Reagan publicly acknowledged the severity of the crisis five years later, tens of thousands of people had already died.
Fast forward to the present, where thousands of people will die or become severely debilitated every year from diseases such as Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, and juvenile diabetes. Recent scientific advances indicate that research into human embryonic stem cells may provide cures for these illnesses.
However, President Bush, backed by religious conservatives who claim that such research is immoral, placed strict limits on stem cell studies in August 2001. Since then, investigations into the therapeutic potential of stem cells have come to a virtual standstill. As one prominent scientist stated to a Senate subcommittee, the current government policy “threatens to starve the field at a time when greater nourishment is critical.”
Last week, California Gov. Gray Davis signed a bill endorsing embryonic stem cell research in his state. The move has been criticized by Bush and California’s initiative, without federal funding, remains largely symbolic. History is repeating itself as an uninformed government science policy threatens to compromise the long-term well-being of American citizens.
Many of the current regulations impeding stem cell research are based on arbitrary distinctions and misinformation. First, stem cells do not need to be obtained from aborted fetuses. In fact, embryonic stem (ES) cells, which have the most therapeutic research potential, can be derived from the very early stages of cell division that occur after sperm-egg fusion. Such embryos are routinely created during in vitro fertilization.
This process leads to an excess of usable embryos, and ES cells are taken only from those embryos that would otherwise be discarded. Thus, the argument that research on these cells is tantamount to murder neglects the fact that these cells will be destroyed anyway. If saving potential human lives is the goal of Bush’s policy, why is in vitro fertilization allowed to continue?
In addition, Bush has stated that his stem cell legislation is structured around the need to “foster and encourage respect for life.” However, by placing a higher value on a cluster of soon-to-be discarded cells than on a person suffering from a debilitating disease, Bush’s restrictions do little to respect the lives of those that could be helped by stem cell research. Scientists who investigate stem cell therapies for disease aren’t taking life. They’re rescuing it from the garbage can.
Finally, current laws restricting stem cell research and funding are based on incomplete scientific information. In an attempt to strike a compromise between both sides of the stem cell debate, Bush has said that only ES cell lines created before August of last year can be used for research. This is a bit like saying that we can solve world hunger by donating the food we find stuck to the bottom of our refrigerator.
Of the 71 ES lines that qualify under Bush’s policy, very few have been extensively characterized, and most are unsuitable for therapeutic applications. Moreover, a majority of these lines are in the hands of private companies and foreign governments, making them extremely difficult to obtain by U.S. scientists.
Despite these arguments, Bush refuses to re-evaluate his stem cell policy. Indeed, some of his advisors have pushed for further regulation of this research and have sought to criminalize participation in stem cell therapy studies.
The courageous stand taken by California legislators last week has reopened the debate on stem cell research. While there is no guarantee that stem cells will be able to cure disease, their potential to benefit millions justifies the need for increased government approval and funding.
Twenty years ago, the misguided scientific policies of the Reagan administration allowed a health care crisis to proceed unchecked. Today, the Bush administration finds itself in a similar position of being able to support research aimed at preventing the death and suffering of countless Americans. One of these Americans happens to be Reagan himself, whose memory has been largely destroyed by Alzheimer’s disease.
If the current administration continues to obstruct necessary scientific research, it too will have suffered a loss of memory — it will have forgotten the important lessons of the past.
David Grimm is a fifth-year graduate student in the Department of Genetics. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.