US Stem Cell Politics Roundup

There have been lot of stem cell research and politics articles in the news of late. In the runup to the US presidential election in November, the Democrats are positioning themselves as the party of stem cell research:

John Kerry said Monday that America needs a president who "believes in science" and supports stem-cell medical research.

The Bush administration has limited federal funding of research on stem cells that results in the destruction of a living human embryo. But Kerry said he'd promote stem-cell science that could aid people with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases and diabetes. "We need to push the curve of discovery," he told 400 Floridians at a NASA visitor center near the space shuttle launch pads.

The current convention is being used as a springboard:

"Stem cell research is about the quality of life of humans," said state Sen. Wayne Bryant, D-Lawnside. "We ought never forsake the ability to correct and prevent medical problems."

Bryant said that in New Jersey, in particular, where Gov. James E. McGreevey has already created the nation's first state-supported stem cell institute, such authorization would not only lead to advances in the medical field, but also produce a "whole new industry."

Tonight, in one of the most thumb-in-your-eye moments of the convention, Ronald Reagan's youngest child will criticize President Bush's position on stem cell research.

Former President Reagan - nothing less than an iconic figure for GOP conservatives - died in June after a decade-long struggle with Alzheimer's disease. Many researchers believe that stem cell research could unlock cures for that debilitating illness and a host of other deadly and crippling diseases.

As an aside on the connection between Alzheimer's research and embryonic or adult stem cell research, I think Chris Mooney summarizes the situation well:

I think this story from the Scientist, from a while back, gives a very balanced take on the question. The article begins by noting that "most in the field admit it's highly unlikely that a stem cell transplant could cure or even treat Alzheimer's." Conservatives are right on this point. But then they miss the bigger picture: Even if transplants probably won't work, embryonic stem cell research could yield a wealth of information about Alzheimer's that could be productive in leading to treatments down the road.


As you can see from this, the question of the future of Alzheimer's research is very much on the table when the embryonic stem cell issue gets debated. Those who leap from the notion that ES cells won't cure Alzheimer's through transplants to the idea that they're absolutely worthless for all things related to Alzheimer's appear to be either ignorant of the science or willfully missing the big picture.

In fact, you'll find a whole array of great posts over at the Intersection:

The NIH on Adult Stem Cells:

Continuing my flurry of campaign-oriented stem cell research posting, consider the following. It so happens that the National Institutes of Health has a position on adult stem cells, and it's one that political boosters of studying these cells to the exclusion of embryonic stem cell research won't take kindly to.

The Union of Concerned Scientists and Stem Cell Research:

It's odd, isn't it? In all of their important critiques of the Bush administration, I'm not aware of any place or occasion when the Union of Concerned Scientists have centrally discussed the stem cell issue.


After all, I happen to know that many of the UCS statement signatories, including Nobel Laureates Paul Berg and David Baltimore, care a lot about embryonic stem cell research. To say nothing of Gerald Fischbach. Still, it's odd that UCS hasn't ever really brought up the matter.

Meet Gerald Fischbach:

"It's hard to stop science," he says. "The first breakthrough, the first patient that really benefits from stem cell therapy, will change everything. It will be irresistible in terms of public demand and recognition."

Of course, Chris Mooney talks about the Democratic convention in the context of the political debate over stem cell research:

My prediction is that the growing emphasis on the relationship between politics and science will only add to the attention garnered by this top political science issue. Back in the summer of 2001, no one knew that Bush II would go on to enrage scientists so profoundly. Now, instead of complaining about widespread meddling with obscure advisory panels, the embryonic stem cell research issue can serve as a sweeping proxy for their discontent.


Nevertheless, embryonic stem cell research potentially touches the lives of more than a hundred million Americans, through their familial ties to those suffering from one or more of the diseases embryonic stem cell research may impact. That's a staggering number of people who either care or could be made to care about the issue.

But enough politics. I'll just note this piece on public support for stem cell research:

On June 11, 2004, the nonprofit and nonpartisan Results For America (a project of CSI) released a national opinion survey showing that, by a decisive margin of 74-21 percent, the vast majority of Americans support former First Lady Nancy Reagan's call for the Bush White House to lift restrictions on stem cell research in order to look for possible treatments for the Alzheimer's disease that afflicted former President Ronald Reagan prior to his recent death, as well as the other grave illnesses - including diabetes, Parkinson's, heart disease and multiple sclerosis.

Solo said: "The death of Ronald Reagan altered the course of the national dialogue about stem cell research. When almost three out of four Americans say that they now are more likely to support stem cell research, what you are witnessing is a fundamental shift in the way that average Americans think about this issue. It would be a shame and a potentially devastating setback for the progress made in support for stem cell research if it becomes some sort of litmus test for political parties during the 2004 elections."

I'll finish up by reminding everyone that 2000 US citizens die each and every day from heart disease, a condition shown to be treatable using even comparatively crude stem cell therapies. Regenerative medicine based on stem cell research (adult and embryonic) has the potential to produce effective treatments for most age-related degenerative conditions.

It is a great pity that we live in a world in which politicians have such an enormous negative influence over our future health, longevity and access to advanced medicine. We should do something about that.


Why stop at embryonic stem cells? There are tons of homeless people out on the street doing nothing for society. Think of all the valuable research that could be done on them. Think of all those wonderful internal organs going to waste. We do not even need new technology to take advantage of this resource.

Posted by: Kyle at July 27th, 2004 1:04 PM

In reply to that, I'll quote Michael Kinsley:

"There are almost 400,000 frozen embryos in the United States, most of which will be destroyed eventually. They are the source of embryos for medical research, and that is why I asserted that "not a single embryo dies because of stem-cell research." Lefkowitz calls this "pure sophistry." I agree that if you believe the life of a five-day-old microscopic clump of cells is as valuable as your life or mine, the fact that the embryo will be destroyed anyway doesn't matter. But that doesn't mean the fact doesn't exist. To those with a less extreme view, it matters a lot."

Posted by: Reason at July 27th, 2004 1:13 PM

A question I have not heard answered:
What does having 400000 lines give you if the stem cells are able to become any sort of cell? As I understand it, you can get federal funds to research using lines that existed at the time of the 'ban'. So, research can go on. If it gets to the point were people are being left out of proven treatments for life threatening illnesses, then you are in a much better leveraged position.

I am not strongly on one side or the other, but I believe even if adult stem cells are less useful than embryonic stem cells, it would be preferable to use the adult stem cells. You don't have to worry about morality and there is no worries about rejection if you use the patient's own stem cells.

Posted by: anomdebus at July 27th, 2004 2:27 PM

From my point of view, Federal funding is not so important as an issue - it's only 30-40% of total funding for medical research. The real problem being caused by the government is not lack of public funding, but rather actively scaring away private funding through threats like banning therapeutic cloning.

Investors look at this sort of thing and put their dollars elsewhere - this has been causing immense damage to the industry (for both adult and embryonic stem cell studies).

On the topic of the number of lines and why the existing Federal lines are a) largely unusable and b) not nearly enough in any case, see here:

Posted by: Reason at July 27th, 2004 3:29 PM

I agree that the federal funding is not essentual, but....

1) There is a movement to outlaw all such research, where as if Federal funding is approved then it is a statement that such research is permissable in the US.

2) If the research is funded by US, then an argument may be made that the price of the results should be related to the social value rather than ONLY to maximize the end producer's profit. --

I don't mind that corporations make a "fair" profit, but when the product is so close to a life requirement we need to balence that with the common good.

Posted by: Mike Liveright at July 27th, 2004 3:50 PM

A bit of comic relief for those of us frustrated by the politics holding up this research.

I read the Slate article that Reason linked to in one of the comments, and I followed the link to Lefkowitz's reply in support of President Bush. I got a web popup with a picture of President Bush from the article's host site, the Washington Post, an often conservately biased news source. Hmmm..., Lefkowitz, supporting President Bush, on the Washington Post. I figured, "Great, they're throwing re-elect Bush ads at me!"

So, imagine my surprise when I read the text of the ad:

Join Kerry [for] President
<button>Contribute $50 Now</button>

Posted by: Jay Fox at July 27th, 2004 9:15 PM

Is masturbation taking of human life? Is menstruation taking of human life? Does an embryo have the potential to become human life? Is it human life? I heard someone say that an embryo is nothing more than a parasite clinging to its mother. I wondered if the person had ever baby-sat. A child is not capable of taking care of itself for several years after its birth. Is the child not a life? Many people die. Death is a part of life, I guess. I heard someone say that these embryos die anyways. Don't people die anyways? When someone dies of natural causes, is it anyone's fault? When an embryo dies because from the process required to gain its stem cells, isn't there a reason for the death? Who is to be held responsible for that? Our society? Does our society have the right to take these lives? It is very sad to see people die. I have seen many people die. It is also sad to see people suffer. Maybe people could see if they could only see the suffering of the embryo. Many people say that you have to have a sensory organ to suffer. Did David Hume teach us that? Does reality exist outside of our perception? Are there other ways to cure diseases? Here is a question for those who think outside of the box: Should we cure diseases? Are we really going to be able to live longer? Do we want to live longer? Does social security and medicare really oppose each other? If you can figure out the answer any of these questions, without any rhetoric about who said what, and scientists this and that, but have a real opinion, let me know.

Posted by: Nobunaga Tokugawa at July 22nd, 2006 12:54 PM

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