March 17, 2009
There’s no doubt that President Barack Obama’s reversal of the federal funding ban for embryonic stem-cell research will affect countless lives. Whether this development is positive, though, depends on who you talk to.
“Embryonic stem cell research has not produced one treatment in humans, just a lot of dead lab mice,” said Joni Eareckson Tada, a Christian author and speaker who became a quadriplegic at age 17. Like many opponents of the President’s decision, she considers it short-sighted at best and immoral at worst.
“Families of disabled children want treatment now,” Eareckson Tada said, explaining that every dollar that goes toward embryonic stem-cell research is a dollar not going toward the study of adult stem cell treatment, which has already proved its efficacy in real life.
Even when setting aside the ethical issue of harvesting cells in a process that destroys the embryo, the medical benefits of embryonic stem cells to treat diseases such as Parkinson’s and cure spinal cord injuries so far has proved futile.
Studies suggest it could take many more years of research before embryonic stem cells can be successfully used to ease human suffering. And there is no guarantee such cells ever will work, which is why critics think the issue has more to do with playing politics than helping people.
Those favoring embryonic stem-cell research came out quickly in defense of Obama’s decision to eliminate the August 2001 restriction put in place by former President George W. Bush. Those restrictions limited the availability of federal funding only for research on the existing 21 stem cell lines.
Obama’s executive order will allow researchers to obtain federal funding to use human embryonic stem-cell lines that have been created since August 2001, along with future lines.
Still in place, however, is a Congressional ban that prohibits the use of federal funds for research that involves the creation and destruction of embryos. But Congress might now attempt to rescind that ban, considering it twice passed legislation that would have allowed the National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies to pay for research using embryonic stem cells. Bush vetoed both bills.
Private research funding continues to be exempt from the Congressional prohibition.
“Stem-cell research is poised to change the face of medicine,” said Mary Jo Kilroy, a U.S. Representative from Ohio.
Few argue that point, but those who protest Obama’s decision stress that it’s essential to distinguish between stem cell research that currently works (adult) and that so far has not (embryonic).
“All breakthroughs have come from adult stem cells, not embryonic,” said Dr. Francisco Contreras, an oncologist and surgeon who is director, president and chairman of Oasis of Hope Hospital in Tijuana, Mexico. “Theoretically, strictly from a medical standpoint, the beauty of embryonic cells is their versatility, but that has proved to be an Achilles heel because a high percentage of the time in animals they also produce tumors. With adult stem cells, there have never been tumors.”
Adult stem cells are of three types: those derived from amniotic fluid; from an umbilical cord; and from a patient’s own stem cells (autologous). Of the three, autologous are the most successful because they contain the patient’s own DNA.
“Which is why we should put money on the best horse in the race,” said Dr. Charles McGowen, chief medical advisor for the American Policy Roundtable, a Christian conservative group based in Cleveland.
“Nine other countries are using autologous cells, said McGowen, rattling off Portugal, Austria, Brazil, Italy, Norway, Germany, Israel, Singapore and Thailand. “They’ve all tried embryonic cells and rejected them.”
McGowen then cited Obama’s speech during the Bush policy reversal.
“President Obama said Americans have a moral imperative to relieve pain and suffering from such diseases as diabetes and spinal cord injuries, and I say, ‘Yes, absolutely.’ And as a physician I always felt a moral imperative to use methods that actually work.”
So the question becomes why don’t scientists forgo research of embryonic stem cells, which don’t work, in favor of adult stem cells that do?
“Because money in this country is with embryonic [research],” McGowen said.
Contreras agreed, explaining that autologous stem cells are financially worth less to researchers and drug companies because they cannot be patented, since they come directly from the patient. Plus fewer drugs are required to help with tissue compatibility issues, which means a monetary hit for drug companies.
There also is a cost differential between adult stem cell treatment and embryonic treatment, the latter costing more than twice as much as the former, Contreras said.
Given that autologous stem cells work best, McGowen said the simple solution is for research scientists to go into their labs and “take their own cells and work with them.”
For now, however, it would appear that Obama’s lifting of restrictions could only add to public confusion rather than provide clarity on the issue of stem cell research. A 2008 poll issued by the Ethics and Public Policy Center found that only 17 percent of Americans are very familiar with stem cell research, which might explain why 32 percent responded that embryonic stem cells have helped cure disease (the actual percent is zero), compared to 23 percent who correctly credited adult stem cells.
Further, while 54 percent of those surveyed said they “totally agree” with the statement that “The social, economic and personal costs of the diseases that embryonic stem cells have the potential to treat are greater than the costs associated with the destruction of embryos,” an even larger percentage (69 percent) “totally agree” that “an embryo is a developing human life, therefore it should not be destroyed for scientific or research purposes.”
The polling statistics so far mostly have been interpreted by the media to show that America is in favor of embryonic stem-cell research, which is a faulty conclusion, said Dr. Kathy McReynolds, a bio-ethicist and professor at Biola University in southern California.
If the public continues to be misled by misinformation or lack of information, scientists will be free to do as they please, McReynolds said.
“This is the next logical step ... because if we want to ‘restore integrity’ to the scientific field – which means value-free science – by providing scientists with autonomy, are they really going to regulate themselves and keep themselves in check in terms of this very issue?” McReynolds said. “What’s to stop them from creating embryos for the sole purpose of research?”
And that is a slippery slope of the slickest kind.
“Obama said this [lifting of the ban] isn’t intended for reproductive cloning, but he didn’t say he would ban it,” McGowen said. “That’s like saying a man doesn’t intend to get drunk and kill someone when he goes out on Saturday night and drinks 12 martinis. He did not specifically say he wouldn’t kill someone.”