Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Thanks for the Private Sector!

Elsewhere I have argued that the Bush Administration has been gutting those aspects of science that it does not like for political and ideological reasons and embryonic stem cell research is yet another example. Normally I am suspicious of privately funded research, but this is a case where privately funded research, especially through foundations, may be crucial if our country is to maintain it's scientific edge.

This seems to be the message in an article in the online edition of Forbes (http://www.forbes.com/2006/08/16/cz_mh_rl_0816mag124.html?partner=yahootix).

The article observes:

" Since the ban, federal funding of embryonic stem-cell work has risen to all of $40 million a year, just one-fifth of the money for other kinds of stem cells and a pittance in the $20 billion research budget of the government's National Institutes of Health. But Eli Broad and a few other billionaires--some of them from President Bush's own Republican Party--and a number of states and private foundations have stepped into the gap. They have funneled three times as much as the federal government into embryonic stem-cell research."

This is really unusual since in these sorts of areas of basic research the NIH typically supplies most of the funding.

Now granted, the anti abortion folks think that embryonic stem cell research is murder since you have to destroy embryos to get at the cells, and they also like to point to the potential for using adult stem cells. But there is not consensus in this country about whether or not these embryos are human. Indeed in practice we do not treat such embryos with the same moral worth as independent humans. If we did, then we would be spending millions of dollars to prevent early miscarriages which cost thousands of embryo lives each year! In fact according to the March of Dimes (http://www.marchofdimes.com/professionals/681_1192.asp ), perhaps 50% of all pregnancies including those before a woman recognizes she is pregnant end in miscarriage.

Furthermore, even if adult stem cells do ultimately prove to useful on a broad scale, we do need to understand the triggers for cell differentiation and there really is only one system for doing that- human embryos. Yes of course we can use other animals including other primates, but ultimately our understanding has to tested in human systems. examined in human embryos.

And yet our country is faced with attempts to criminalize embryonic stem cell research, such as recent initiatives in California. Should research with human embryos be regulated? Sure, just as we have regulations regarding the use of human subjects. But these regulations need to be crafted carefully to allow research into human development and cellular differentiation, and therapies and yet prevent cloning of human beings (as opposed to human cells).

While other countries have resisted the politicalization of research in the name of "morality" the Bush administration has so restricted NIH funding of embryonic stem cell research that, according to the Forbes article, one researcher has gone out of his way to prevent the mixing of NIH funding and private funding for embryonic stem cell research:

"At Memorial Sloan-Kettering, stem-cell biologist Lorenz Studer ... Cautiously puts yellow stickers on every piece of equipment used for banned experiments to inoculate his operation from any NIH contact. His grad students put stickers on wastebaskets to mock the NIH."

When are we going to wake up to the games being played by our Federal Government in the name of ideology?

Other links:

Testimony of Dr. John Kessler before the US Senate HHS Committee on the need for embryonic stem cell research: (http://www.appropriations.senate.gov/text/hearmarkups/record.cfm?id=204163)

Ethics and Politics of Stem Cell Research:
(http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1447568)

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