Stomping Out Stem Cells

Stem cell research is among the most critical pursuits of our time. Medical discoveries occur on many levels, but stem cells might very well be capable of fundamentally changing the way diseases are treated. It is therefore critical that the decision made by federal judge Royce C. Lamberth in August, which could stifle progress in this essential realm of study, must not stand.

The decision comes as a response to President Barack H. Obama’s 2009 executive order to reduce limitations on research, which were imposed by President George W. Bush. The controversy originates from the 1996 Dickey-Wicker amendment, a key piece of stem cell legislation that prevents tax-dollar funding of the creation, destruction, or injury of human embryos. While this ruling has been renewed annually, both Obama and Bush permitted funding for other phases of the stem cell research process, even those that used cells obtained from such embryos.

The scientists who started the lawsuit against Obama’s order claim that this distinction is a false one. Their point is valid—if the government doesn’t fund the initial processes conducted on embryos but supports the subsequent research on their cells, then it is primarily making a symbolic gesture by withholding that funding.

Frankly, this stance sends a mixed message to Americans about the government’s position on the issue. Obviously, there are sharp disagreements among our leaders as to the ethics of stem cell research, but the majority opinion ought to assume a firmer position one way or the other. Other countries already have laws in place with far less ambiguity.

Having said that, the legal vagueness exposed by this case should be remedied by movement away from such restrictions. The consequences of limiting this funding are several. First and perhaps most important is the simple disruption of hard-won progress that took many years to achieve. Douglas Melton and David Scadden of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute cite the court’s decision as “disastrous for our science.”

It isn’t only the research and the medical and scientific progress that could be affected. Melton and Scadden add that such action will discourage others from pursuing careers in the field. Furthermore, around 1,300 jobs could be at stake, along with $200 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health. Scientists are turning to private sources of funding out of fear of the effects of Lamberth’s decision.

It is not as though stem cells only provide hope or the theoretical promise of advancements. Progress in the field is very real, and the case comes at a time of high momentum for some researchers. Recently, a Harvard team discovered a new method of obtaining stem cells that does not require the destruction of embryos. A group at Stanford also found that skin cells could possibly be turned into stem cells. Additionally, doctors recently began trials on U.S. spinal cord patients using tissues created from stem cells.

These are signs of progress, and if Lamberth’s ruling holds, then a great deal of momentum could be lost. Some researchers will be stalled while they search for alternative sources of funding, and others will have no choice but to discontinue their work altogether. This potentially means throwing away gains made through the use of embryos and rendering their destruction meaningless, which should bring no comfort even to opponents of stem cell research.

The potential of stem cells is widely recognized, and that fact will motivate some scientists to research them so long as they can manage to find funding. Imposing limitations on federal contributions will cause great disruption but will not stop research in its entirely; Harvard’s work, for instance, would be unaffected. What it will do is slow progress down, and crucial discoveries, perhaps including those that could eliminate the need to use embryos altogether, will not come as quickly.

Lamberth’s decision is crushing not only for scientists but also for the many individuals whose sole hopes lie in potential stem cell cures. The wheels are in motion for epochal advancements in medical science; now is not the time to discourage our nation’s hardworking researchers. The ruling is a slam to scientific inquiry at large. Science relies heavily on continuous progress; if there is a persistent fear that projects will be disrupted, then motivation will surely vanish.

Jacob S. Beech ’14, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Thayer Hall.

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