Yesterday, Massachusetts announced a massive new stem cell research program, which amounts to more than $1 billion dollars in new funding. The grants are good, but I’m most excited by Governor Patrick’s proposal for a stem cell bank, the first of its kind in America. According to the Boston Globe, eight hospitals and universities, including Harvard, have agreed to send their stem cell lines to the bank. Back when I was living in England, I wrote an article for the MIT Technology Review on the British stem cell bank:
The centerpiece of the British stem cell plan is a national stem cell bank, launched in September 2002. Based in South Mimms, a suburb of London, the bank is designed to serve as a clearinghouse for all British stem cells, vouching for their genetic stability, cultivating large standardized stocks, and ensuring their ethical use. Before U.K. scientists may even attempt to derive human embryonic stem cell lines, they must secure a government license. Furthermore, the terms of governmental funding require that scientists deposit their cell lines in the bank, so other researchers can work with them as well. The bank distributes the cells free of charge under the strict supervision of a motley panel of scientists, civil servants, and ethicists.
Heike Weber, program manager at the U.K. Medical Research Council, the bank’s main funder, explains the philosophy behind the bank’s processes: “Stem cells are a public resource. We need to make sure that this research is done in an ethical manner and that once the lines are created, they are made available to other researchers. If you let private money get involved, then pretty soon you’re going to have companies that don’t want to share their lines, and you end up destroying a lot more embryos.”
I take the ethical implications of stem cells seriously. I believe that every stem cell line is a profound public resource. This is precisely why I’m so eager for the government to step in and regulate the distribution of stem cell lines. I think the British model is exactly right: an apolitical panel of scientists and ethicists should determine which research deserves to use stem cells. The main purpose of this panel isn’t to impose restrictions, or to prevent nefarious attempts at human cloning by Dr. Evil. It’s to make sure that researchers have equal access to the lines, that there isn’t unnecessary duplication of research, and that stem cells aren’t hoarded by private companies.