President Obama is announcing his much anticipated change in stem cell policy.
The president’s action, which will carry out a campaign pledge, involves a long-controversial intersection of science and personal moral beliefs. NYT
Monday’s announcement will not mean an immediate change in policy as the NIH will take several months to create the new regulations. However, that does not mean that opponents will wait.
Georgia will be first to react as the state senate will take a bill (SB 169) pronounced “dead” for this session on March 5 to make it illegal to destroy any human embryo (no matter how created – with sperm and egg or via somatic nuclear cell transfer).
Interesting advances — but nothing set in concrete yet.
“The point is, we don’t know yet what the end potential of either of these approaches will be,” said Mark A. Kay of Stanford University. “No one has cured any disease in people with any of these approaches yet. We don’t know enough yet to know which approach will be better.”
New Post article updates discussion regarding impending federal policy changes. One possible change:
Among the issues the guidelines will address is whether funding should be limited to cells from leftover embryos that are destined for destruction at infertility clinics.
The arguments by opponents to “liberalization” of federal policy include:
Opponents have argued that research on human embryonic stem cells has become unnecessary because of scientific advances in the interim, including promising studies involving adult stem cells and the ability to turn adult cells into cells that appear to have many of the properties of embryonic cells..
Legislation has been proposed, include SB 169 in Georgia, to prohibit the use of “left over” embryo’s from IVF procedures. And, the definition within SB 169 would also seem to prohibit using adult stem cells that mimic embryonic stem cells as such stem cells may indeed lead to cloning a human, or at the very least fulfill the definition of cloing, see:
‘Human embryo’ means an organism with a human or predominantly human genetic
constitution from the single-celled stage to approximately eight weeks development that
is derived by fertilization (in vitro or in utero), parthenogenesis, cloning (somatic cell
nuclear transfer), or any other means from one or more human gametes or human diploid
California’s $3 billion effort has just begun (2007) — and this article from the San Jose Mercury News points out that profits are long term, not short term, because:
- Ethical/moral arguments surrounding stem cell research
- So little is known, basic research is the first recipient of funds
- Risky process of developing product keeps investors at bay
- Two companies, Geron and Advanced Cell, hold many of the patents for human embryonic stem cell research and associated technologies.
However, there are eternal optimists:
“You’ll see more companies forming around embryonic work,” said Gregory Bonfiglio, managing partner of Palo Alto-based Proteus Venture Partners, which plans to invest in such firms. “This technology will fundamentally change health care.”
CQ reports two alternatives under consideration by the Obama Administration to revise current federal stem cell policy:
Obama could issue an executive order lifting the restriction — which permits federal funding for research only on those stem cell colonies extracted before Aug. 9, 2001 — and authorize research on all embryonic stem cell lines, as long as the cells are “ethically derived.”
This would not award more money for the field per se, but dramatically expand the kind of stem cell research that’s eligible for federal grants, as long as donors give informed consent and are not paid to donate eggs or embryos.
The approach is outlined in a new policy paper from the Center for American Progress (CAP), a left-leaning think tank founded by John Podesta, who also headed Obama’s transition team.
But some patient advocates and research institutions favor a more minimalistic approach they say would keep politics and science apart.
The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR) has been urging Obama to simply rescind the Bush policy — a move that would, by implication, leave it to the National Institutes of Health to issue guidelines for the field.
Coalition President Amy Comstock Rick said that policy making should be put in the hands of scientists and bioethicists, instead of elected officials. If Obama’s is too prescriptive in the way he undoes Bush’s policy, future president might feel compelled to tweak or revise Obama’s policy.
Whichever path he chooses, Obama can rest assured that the Democratic Congress will weigh in and try to codify the stem cell position into law later this year.
The executive summary from CAP has a rebuttal to the argument that all the benefits of stem cell research can be gained without use of embryonic stem cells:
Opponents also point to so-called induced pluripotent stem cells, which are created when adult cells—say, skin cells—are reprogrammed to become all-purpose “pluripotent” cells. These arguments are valid, but only up to a point. The reason: embryonic stem cells are both the original “master cells” capable of turning into any cell in the body as well as the “gold standard” against which all other stem cells must be compared
A full report and links to other information are provided in the CAP link above. CAMR argues for relaxed federal restrictions along these lines:
Stem cell research is one of the most exciting fields of study for young researchers, yet many are hesitant to enter a field with an uncertain future and funding restrictions. In addition, the restrictions fly in the face of the diversity requirements established by the Federal government for clinical research. The federally approved lines do not represent the diversity in our society, which is a critical part of ensuring that new medicines work for everyone.
An excerpt of a letter signed by Cardinal Francis George, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, sums the arguments:
The embryonic stem cell policy initiated by President Bush has at times been criticized from both ends of the pro-life debate, but some criticisms are based on false premises. The policy did not ban embryonic stem cell research, or funding of such research. By restricting federally funded research to cell lines in existence at the time he issued his policy, he was trying to ensure that Americans are not forced to use their tax dollars to encourage expanded destruction of embryonic human beings for their stem cells. Such destruction is especially pointless at the present time, for several reasons.
- First, basic research in the capabilities of embryonic stem cells can be and is being pursued using the currently eligible cell lines as well as the hundreds of lines produced with nonfederal funds since 2001.
- Second, recent startling advances in reprogramming adult cells into embryonic-like stem cells – hailed by the journal Science as the scientific breakthrough of the year – are said by many scientists to be making embryonic stem cells irrelevant to medical progress.
- Third, adult and cord blood stem cells are now known to have great versatility, and are increasingly being used to reverse serious illnesses and even help rebuild damaged organs. To divert scarce funds away from these promising avenues for research and treatment toward the avenue that is most morally controversial as well as most medically speculative would be a sad victory of politics over science.
California’s Imperial Valley sees the potential new rule from the Obama administration as an economic plus to support California’s $3 billion, voter approved, investment in stem cell research.
However, any new rule would not result in creation of additional stem lines for research. That activity is banned by law :
The Dickey-Wicker amendment, first passed in 1995, prohibits the use of federal funds for the creation of human embryos for research purposes or the destruction or injury of human embryos.
But, the new rules could provide the ethical guidelines missing from current policy:
“The current Bush policy harms U.S. interests not just because it severely restricts the use of federal funds for a potentially life-saving new branch of medical science,” he wrote. “It also hurts the nation because, to the extent it allows such research to go forward, it demands almost nothing in the way of ethical constraints.” In other words, Bush’s attempt to claim the moral high ground on a contentious issue stranded the very research he was trying to regulate in murky ethical waters.
Rumors are persisting that Georgia will seek to restrict stem cell research on pro-life grounds, no matter what fed law says…
“I would assume there will be an effort to restrict embryonic stem cell research. Georgia would stake out its ground as being pro-life,” said state Sen. Eric Johnson (R-Savannah).
A state constitutional amendment has been filed to define life at conception. But, that is not directed at this fight.
Time Magazine has a book review of , The Language of God by Francis Collins. The reviewer notes how Collins maps his arguments for a middle ground between atheists and neo-christian conservatives on the issue of evolution.
I think Collins’ approach is a way to reasonably engage in debate on the science and tech issues which neo-christians are attacking – the very issues which can decide who dominates economics and politics in the 21st century.
John Leo, in this week's USNEWS, decrys a full page ad by DEFCON in the New York Times which names James Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson as America's most influential stem cell scientists. Mr. Leo says the efforts by the Religious Right are about the moral debate on stem cells and not the voracity of the science (hmm.. does voracity and science constitute synonyms?).
Having been on the front lines of the debate here in Georgia (See Down the Rabbit Hole Part 2) — I have to disagree with Mr. Leo's innocent defense of the trio. Language placed in the proposed law regarding stem cell research had everything to do with science, or what the Religious Right wished the science to be as they defined life as beginning with a single cell, and denied scientists access to methods that could be used either for embryonic or adult stem cell research. And, the tactics used by the Georgia Christian Coalition (Ms. Fields, et al), the Georgia Familiy Council, and other allied support groups were exactly what were used in the fights over evolution (which Mr. Leo agrees are attacks on science).
If this were truly a debate about the morals, and the treatment of embryos in general, then why was the debate disguised as a creation of an umbilical cord blood bank (which already existed) versus a complete discussion of how embryos are managed? Why was discussion not allowed on what happens when embryos (or fertilized eggs) are discarded in fertility clinics? The US Senate is considering a bill to liberalize the Bush doctrine on stem cell research – discussion of using normally discarded fertilized eggs is center stage in that debate.
Legislating morals is what legislatures do — no problem here. But, defining science, and scientific methods is not a core competency of any elected (or unelected) legislative body.