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The Stem Cell Dilemma

Postcard from Washington, D.C.

By Melissa Quino mccreery

When President Bush yet again vetoed a bill supporting embryonic stem cell research last Wednesday, I expected more of a reaction here in Washington, D.C. But while people were frustrated and irritated, it was no different than any other day. Perhaps it was because I don't work "on the Hill," or because my coworkers at a health policy think tank are so accustomed to this behavior from the Bush Administration. Bush's stem cell policy, however, is unacceptable. It is not only stifling funds for research that could save lives, but it does not even effectively address the moral questions that embryonic stem cells raise.

Funding embryonic stem cell research, Bush says, would “cross a moral line.” The research requires stem cell lines, which must be created by destroying embryos that are a few days old. Uncomfortable with this procedure, the Bush Administration adopted a policy in 2001 that federal funding can be used only to conduct research on lines created before August 9, 2001. At the time, there were about 70 viable “Presidential lines.” Now, between nine and 21 usable ones remain, depending on who is defining “usable.” With this nonsensical policy, Bush has seemingly clung to the hope that embryonic stem cell research will go away.

It hasn't.

For all Bush's talk about ethics and the immorality of destroying embryos—even embryos that will be inevitably destroyed by fertility clinics—the Bush Administration has refused thus far to fully engage the ethical issues. It certainly hasn’t stopped embryonic stem cell research—but it has made funding more complicated, forced scientists to keep their federally-funded and non-federally-funded projects separate, and left a void where national ethical standards should be. Bush's executive order, which he issued Wednesday along with his veto, further demonstrates the same sort of evasion: Bush encouraged scientists to look for other “morally acceptable” ways to conduct stem cell research.

While such alternative methods show their own promises, they cannot replace embryonic stem cell research. Stem cells found in amniotic fluid, which Bush suggested “seem to do what embryonic cells can,” are simply not as versatile as the embryonic stem cells they supposedly mimic. The same problem is even more true of adult stem cells, which have successfully been used for some treatments but which will never be usable for others. Although the Bush Administration has argued that there have been more successful treatments with adult stem cells than with embryonic ones, it is also worth noting that research on adult stem cells has been going on for 40 years, whereas research with human embryonic stem cells has taken place only in the last decade, over half of which has been burdened with Bush’s restrictive funding policy.

Recently, there has been excitement about reprogramming adult cells into embryonic stem cells, a feat newly accomplished with mice. But this, too, has its problems. First, it may be years before the same can be done with human cells. Second, and possibly more troublingly, the resulting cells were highly susceptible to tumors—clearly not ideal for developing medical treatments.

While all these alternative methods are worth investigating and are already being avidly pursued by scientists, they are not a substitute for embryonic stem cell research, as Bush has suggested. The fastest way to discover new cures is to pursue all avenues of research, not to abandon the most promising one and try to make up for it by spending extra money on the others.

Further, scientists have good reason to want new embryonic lines. The Presidential lines are deteriorating, and they are of limited variety. Some researchers also hope to research diseases and disease development by studying lines with genetic defects, which could be obtained from embryos with those genetic defects (which would certainly be discarded by fertility clinics). At the very least, federal funding should be available for research on any existing line, even if it is not used to create new ones.

The ethical issue, however, remains. To be sure, there is an issue. The Bush Administration’s concerns about destroying human life are not a fabrication of the religious right or merely an excuse for an anti-science administration to deny funding. They are the same concerns that have been brought up in Europe, where governments have been far more permissive of embryonic stem cell research. Scientists in European countries typically must obtain a license to create a new embryonic line. Even in Britain, where the government has been not only permissive but actively supportive of embryonic research, there is widespread recognition that embryos should not be freely destroyed. The British government, like many others, has also imposed a rule that embryos can only be used if they were originally created for reproductive purposes, as at a fertility clinic, and are already slated for destruction.

Yet Bush, while loudly protesting about immorality, has effectively left the U.S. without any such ethical standards. The National Institutes of Health did not come up with regulations for the acceptable use of embryos and embryonic stem cells, leaving states that choose to fund the research to create their own. The National Academies of Science, recognizing the problem, have proposed a set of guidelines, but these will stand as mere recommendations as long as the federal government officially refuses to get involved.

The promise of embryonic stem cell research is not an abstract hope that there may be cures in distant future, but an expectation of concrete results in the near future. In mice, embryonic stem cells turned in dopamine have already been shown to ameliorate Parkinson’s disease. Embryonic stem cell research promises to save lives. Yet, it also poses pressing questions about where, exactly, the ethical boundaries are. Our country needs a new policy that engages the ethical questions, sets standards, and allows scientists to move forward.

Melissa Quino McCreery ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is a chemistry and physics concentrator in Quincy House. She is working at FasterCures / The Center for Accelerating Medical Solutions in Washington, D.C., this summer.

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