The Scientific Activist

Stem Cell Drama

As the Senate votes today on HR 810, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, this post from the archives describes how the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research has negatively impacted some researchers. In light of these facts, it’s hard to not support the passage of HR 810.

(25 January 2006) Embryonic stem cell research is hot right now–really hot–but it’s not easy. The South Korean stem cell crisis might be a minor setback, more relevant to basic scientific ethics issues, but the Bush administration’s policy toward embryonic stem cells is not trivial and has already had far reaching consequences.

The recent New York Times interview with prominent Harvard stem cell researcher Douglas Melton touches on all of these issues. Melton, who focuses his research on potential treatments for diabetes, describes an environment stifled by unnecessary regulation. When asked about the effect of the Bush ban on federal funding for research involving new embryonic stem cell lines, Melton said:

It made it more difficult, to say the least. Long before Bush’s speech, we had planned stem cell experiments. Afterward, we were able to go forward because the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Juvenile Diabetes Association and Harvard alumni provided private funding.

However, because of administration policy, we had to set up this whole new laboratory that was separate from everything else here at Harvard.

And we had to separate the money in a really scrupulous way. We have an accountant who makes sure that not a penny of federal funds goes to embryonic stem cell research. We have separate everything – light bulbs, computers, centrifuges.

This can be burdensome. Most of the activities at this university receive federal money in some indirect way. So you have to ask yourself, “How can you do the research without any imprint of federal funding?”

And we’re not just talking about equipment and real estate; it’s people. Let’s suppose there’s a graduate student who’s receiving a federally funded fellowship, can he or she participate in thinking about this research or even look at the data? The answer is no.

Although I love being a scientist, I’ll admit that doing science can be pretty difficult as is, having to deal with the intellectual and practical challenges of the research itself, grants and funding, and the rules and regulations already in place. Additional restrictions on top of these can be damning, especially in a field characterized by an active and integral exchange of ideas and resources. Such difficulties could also make promising students look toward other more accessible areas of research:

The lack of federal support keeps many of America’s brightest young scientists from working in this area….

The bottom line here is that it’s unlikely that one person or one lab will solve a problem as big as degenerative diseases, which is what stem cell researchers are trying to do.

It takes a community of people in an area to solve a big problem. If you were trying to solve cancer at two places, no one would think that was enough.

This policy needs to change, but the current administration turns a deaf ear toward the American public, the majority of which support funding for embryonic stem cell research. This stubbornness will weaken the United States, a nation that has become complacent in its leading position in worldwide science and has already begun to lose its edge. More importantly, though, the science will suffer and the medical potential of embryonic stem cell research will be not be realized fully, or at least not nearly as quickly as it could have been.


  1. #1 thomas Barta
    July 18, 2006

    What nobody usually mentions is that Stem Cell research is also a potential source of job growth.

    It is a disgrace that future life-saving treatments are held hostage to an administration that seems to believe it is more important to pander to drooling idiots who try to make an ethical crises of tiny clumps of cells that has no inherant inclination to progress to humanness. This same administration has no qualms about raining barrels of napalm down on anybody who stands between US oil interests and Iraqi oil. Shame!

  2. #3 Stem Cell Research
    December 16, 2006

    I have a few comments:

    First of all, in response to losing potential job growth to cater to “idiots”, I believe that the stem cell issue is much bigger than job growth, and you may not agree with Bush’s moral stance, but is legalizing prostetution worth the job growth? What about letting anyone who wants to perform a brain surgery? Granted, those are pretty extreme, but many would consider at least one of those two morally wrong even though it might improve job growth.

    I know that this was posted a long time ago, but I was also curious what nick had to say about Adult Stem cell research? You seem to know a lot about the field and be active in research. Do you personally feel it has a lot of potential.

  3. #4 Nick Anthis
    December 19, 2006

    Of course adult stem cell research shows a great deal of potential, but it has not been demonstrated to have the ability to replace embryonic stem cells for their potential uses.