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Obama, McCain Likely To Back Funding for Embryonic Stem Cell Research

While Obama has consistently supported the research, McCain, a recent convert, is less enthusiastic

By Clifford M. Marks and Kevin Zhou, Crimson Staff Writerss

Shortly after taking office, President Bush was confronted with a question that few politicians up to that point had spent time on—whether to support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Ultimately, Bush chose to constrain funding for the controversial practice, siding with the more conservative wing of his party that considers embryonic stem cell research immoral.

“I worry about a culture that devalues life,” Bush said in an announcement limiting funding to a handful of existing stem cell lines. “As your president I have an important obligation to foster and encourage respect for life in America and throughout the world.”

But Harvard’s scientists saw the ethical calculus differently, reasoning that their research could provide life-saving medical treatments to millions of people suffering from diseases like Parkinson’s and diabetes. In 2004, University leaders created the multi-million dollar Harvard Stem Cell Institute and started laying plans to give it prime real estate within the new Allston campus.

Since 2004, HSCI has grown into a powerhouse in the fledgling field of embryonic stem cell research. Tapping Harvard’s unrivaled financial resources, the director of HSCI has also provided leadership for stem cell researchers across the country, notably by making dozens of cell lines freely available for others to use.

This presidential election will likely augur a change for federal financing of embryonic stem cell research, because both presidential candidates support an expansion of federal funding for stem cells. But the records of the two candidates, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, reveal an enthusiasm gap in their desire to invest in the research.

THE RECORDS

Obama has long been a vocal proponent of expanding government support for embryonic stem cell research, having backed legislation in the Illinois Senate to permit embryonic stem cell research.

His support continued when he arrived in the U.S. Senate, where he joined 40 of his colleagues in co-sponsoring a bill to direct federal funding to embryonic stem cell research.

“This bill embodies the innovative thinking that we as a society demand and medical advancement requires,” he said in a speech supporting the legislation. “By expanding scientific access to embryonic stem cells which would be otherwise discarded, this bill will help our nation’s scientists and researchers develop treatments and cures to help people who suffer from illnesses and injuries for which there are currently none.”

By contrast, McCain is a recent convert to federal support for embryonic stem cell research: despite opposing federal funding when the issue first came up in Congress several years ago, he now supports funding the controversial research and has voted for recent legislation to increase such support.

But despite his change of heart, McCain’s advocacy for stem cell research has been less aggressive than Obama’s.

In his response to a recent questionnaire from a group of scientists, McCain said that “clear lines should be drawn that reflect a refusal to sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for the sake of scientific progress.”

And McCain’s runningmate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, has opposed federal funding for embryonic stem cell work since before she broke onto the national stage.

In a 2006 gubernatorial debate, Palin said she could not support embryonic research on moral grounds.

“Stem cell research that would ultimately end in the destruction of life, I couldn’t support,” she said.

Though federal funding rules for this research appear likely to change no matter which candidate is elected, the recent discovery of less controversial approaches to creating stem cells might render the point moot. McCain and Palin have said this potential is reason to hope there will one day be no need for embryonic methods.

But Harvard’s leading scientists—some actively pursuing the new approach to stem cells—have responded by saying work on both methods needs to continue.

Indeed, the new breakthroughs that might eliminate the need for embryonic stem cells have only been made possible because of previous work performed with embryonic stem cells, according to Matthias Stadtfeld, a Harvard scientist who has recently published papers on non-embryonic stem cells.

—Staff writer Clifford M. Marks can be reached at cmarks@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Kevin Zhou can be reached at kzhou@fas.harvard.edu.

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