Harvard, God and the Petri Dish

The University’s new stem cell center will advance medicine, despite lack of federal funds

In labs across the globe, a biological “space race” of sorts is pitting nation against nation in a competition to uncover the therapeutic potential of stem cells. Only this time, the foreign competitors are way ahead.

In February, South Korean scientists successfully extracted a line of stem cells from a cloned human embryo, a Sputnik-sized embarrassment for U.S. researchers. Stymied by the Bush administration’s 2001 prohibition on federal funds for research on newly-created stem cell lines, American scientists have long been confronted by an unattractive choice—use scarce, sometimes inferior government-approved stem cell lines or strike out alone without any federal cash.

Thanks to the efforts of private donors, however, U.S. research into the creation of new stem cell lines has continued—albeit at a reduced pace. Harvard, to its credit, has led this push. In March, Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences Douglas A. Melton made 17 new stem cell lines freely available for private use. And last week, Harvard unveiled plans for a new stem cell center aimed at coordinating the University’s research in the area. Funded privately to circumvent government restrictions, the center will help to quicken the pace of American stem cell research.

And in this line of research, which involves potential cures for life-threatening diseases, pace matters. Stem cell research may be the key to understanding and treating many currently untreatable maladies like Lou Gehrig’s disease, diabetes and spinal cord injuries. Harvard’s vision—and decision to forge ahead despite short-sighted federal restrictions—is good for the University and good for humanity.

So it is a shame that so few of America’s elected leaders comprehend these long-term benefits.

The Massachusetts legislature recently stripped a provision declaring the state’s support for stem cell research from an economic stimulus bill passed last fall. Pro-life groups and lobbyists for the Catholic Church engineered the move—falsely equating therapeutic cloning with abortion.

But therapeutic cloning, which destroys embryos consisting of no more than a few cells, is a fundamentally different process from abortion. Therapeutic cloning happens in the lab, not in the womb. Whereas opponents of stem cell research see life in a few cells smeared in a petri dish, we see the millions of human lives which will be saved through stem cell treatments—even if these treatments only live up to the most conservative hopes of researchers.

Government, be it state or federal, should not impede the vast medical advances stem cell research promises. Thankfully, federal funding restrictions have not stopped the creation of new stem cell lines entirely. The Bush administration should recognize the ineffectiveness of its regulations on stem cell research and open up government grants to all, and the Massachusetts legislature should jump at the chance to ensure that this state, with its wealth of academic institutions, remains at the center of a medical revolution. Harvard and other private American research institutions have shown the vision; it’s time for America’s elected leaders to embrace it.