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On the ninth hour of the ninth day of the eighth month of 2001, the clock struck midnight on stem- cell research. After 9 p.m. on Aug. 9, 2001, therapeutic cloning—the production of new stem cell lines from early embryos—was officially denied federal funding. Since that time, researchers studying everything from tissue regrowth to cell differentiation have faced an unpleasant choice: use expensive, often poor-quality federal stem-cell lines, if they are available at all, or seek substantial amounts of private money to generate new ones.
Since the federal government has shirked support for what could be the most significant field of biological research for years to come, we are glad to see Harvard and other private institutions stepping in to help fill the funding void left by the Bush administration. Indeed, a recent press release confirmed that the University, which has already started to make stem-cell lines available to researchers across the country, is planning to open a stem-cell research hub at the new campus in Allston. University President Lawrence H. Summers is positioning Harvard at the forefront of the most exciting development in biological research—which is great for the University community and, ultimately, humanity.
But, although the future looks good for stem-cell research at Harvard, other universities across the country are finding it harder to keep up. Harvard and its partners have the financial wherewithal to pursue stem-cell research aggressively without federal funding—not the case for most research institutions. Even now that the University has offered to give away the new stem-cell lines it creates, the absence of government money is severely retarding the progress of stem-cell research in the United States.
This is a particularly frustrating problem because stem-cell research is just beginning to demonstrate its potential. Federally funded labs have been able to research up to a point—they get government money as long as they use the few stem-cell lines the federal government has on hand. Yet once research goes beyond its initial stages and more fresh stem-call lines are required, government funds dry up. Research using stem cells to treat Parkison’s disease, for instance, will require new stem-cell lines once clinical trials begin, says Ron McKay, a researcher at the federally-funded National Institutes of Health. To get those new stem-cell lines, scientists like McKay must compete for a limited pool of private funding, making it entirely possible that further research could go underfunded or totally unfunded.
So why did President Bush impose such harmful restrictions? Quite simply, he associated the harvesting of lab-created embryos with abortion—a dubious stretch, in our view. We find it hard to believe that a dozen undifferentiated cells created in a petri dish—cells that will never develop into a human being—should be protected with such zeal. Especially when they hold promising potential to repair damaged blood vessels or cure Alzheimer’s disease.
The rest of the world has embraced stem-cell research, and real progress is beginning to be made in countries like South Korea toward a host of exciting new cures. President Bush and his cohorts on the Christian Right can continue to hold the United States back, or they can finally get over their hang-ups and let American scientists join their colleagues abroad in bettering the human condition.
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