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Science without limits

LEESBURG, Va. (BP)–On March 9 President Obama issued an executive order removing the restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research instituted by former President Bush. Embryonic stem cell research has provoked great controversy because it necessarily involves the destruction of nascent human life. Two alternative methods of stem cell research have seen great success and are free from ethical controversy, but Obama chose to ignore both ethics and pragmatism in his misguided commitment to support embryonic stem cell research with taxpayer money.

The controversy surrounding embryonic stem cell research has persisted for years. Ethical concerns over the destruction of embryos were so great that, in 1996, Congress passed the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, preventing federal funds from being used in research that involved the production or destruction of human embryos. Former-President Bush later opened the door for the federal funding of research on embryonic stem cell lines which had already been derived from the privately-funded destruction of embryos prior to his August 2001 order. Obama removed that date restriction, opening up the floodgates for billions of taxpayer dollars to be spent on any embryonic stem cell lines produced since 2001 and providing economic incentives for the destruction of more embryos.

President Obama paid no heed to a clear alternative to embryonic stem cell research which has arisen in the past two years. Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) are adult cells (often derived from skin or hair) which are “induced” by scientists to regress to a state akin to embryonic stem cells. This approach has seen particularly great success in the past year, leading Rudolf Jaenisch, an expert in transgenic science, to explain that “biologically there’s no difference” between iPS stem cells and embryonic stem cells. In fact, iPS stem cells provide a work-around for the troublesome compatibility issues surrounding embryonic stem cells since they are derived from a patient’s own cells.

This new approach is so promising that some of the most prominent researchers in the field have abandoned embryonic stem cell research to focus on iPS stem cells. Sir Ian Wilmut, the scientist who produced Dolly the Sheep, announced in 2007 that he was abandoning his previous research to focus on iPS stem cells. James Thompson, the University of Wisconsin scientist who isolated the first embryonic stem cells, has shifted the focus of two of his companies to iPS stem cells. If two of the biggest names in stem cell research chose to abandon embryonic stem cells for iPS cells, you would think everyone would take note. Instead, President Obama and “the scientific community” continue to insist that embryonic stem cells are crucial to a healthy future.

Despite the scientific community’s many promises of stem cell-based cures, embryonic stem cell research has yet to provide a single available treatment after many years of research.

If the President was truly concerned about effective cures and therapy, he would send massive funding towards another promising technology: adult stem cell research. Unlike iPS stem cells, adult stem cells are not returned to an “embryonic” state — rather, they are taken directly from a patient or donor (sometimes from their bone marrow or umbilical cord blood) and injected into the diseased part of their body. This form of therapy has yielded huge success in recent years.

Among a long list of achievements, adult stem cell therapy has helped a young boy recover greatly from a fatal genetic skin disease, given a man with Parkinson’s an extra five years to go on “photo-safaris” when he had expected to be in a wheelchair, replaced a woman’s windpipe after she had lost the ability to breathe due to tuberculosis, reduced the effects of alcohol-caused cirrhosis of the liver in several patients, grown new blood vessels in two kidney dialysis patients, grown bone transplants to replace the upper jaw of a 65-year-old patient, helped to integrate replacement breast tissue into women who had had lumpectomies, restored sight to six people who had been blinded by chemicals or genetic diseases, and given a young girl born blind the ability to see her parents for the first time. These are but a few of the many therapeutic successes of adult stem cell technology.

With all of these adult stem cell achievements and the controversy-free potential of iPS stem cells, you would think that the president would be even more gung-ho about these treatments than he is about embryonic stem cell research. But instead, when Obama nullified former-President Bush’s restrictions on embryonic stem cell research funding, he also eliminated Bush’s funding for these “alternative” forms of stem cell research. In other words, Obama paved the way for massive federal funding of an unsuccessful and ethically-flawed avenue of research and stripped away funding for successful, controversy-free avenues. So much for Obama’s claim that he is removing politics from science.

What possible reason could underlie such absurd decisions? Dr. Irving Weissman, director of The Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, provides us with a hint. In a recent interview with NPR, he said, “It’s not just stem cell research that’s the issue here. It’s the idea that you can impose a religious or a political or a moral ideology on the pursuit of what nature has.” Dr. Weissman’s comments point to the dark underbelly of the scientific community’s overwhelming support of embryonic stem cell research.

Much of the scientific community today believe that there should be no restrictions of any kind placed on their “pursuit of science” — a pursuit conveniently defined by them. Religion, morality, law, pragmatism — nothing should constrain their right to do as they see fit. Unfortunately, too many people today are blinded by this rhetoric of “unbridled science.” They fail to recognize that science needs and has always needed moral and political constraints. Consider the awful Mengele experiments on twins in Nazi Germany, the creation of two-headed dogs through grafting by a Soviet Union surgeon, the vivisections, amputations and infections administered by the Japanese “Unit 731,” or the Tuskegee study on syphilis in African-American men that prevented them from being treated for the disease. Without moral, religious or political limits, there would be no grounds to prevent such atrocities.

Society inevitably sets political and moral parameters for scientific research. This can take on many forms, including placing restrictions on specific forms of research or funding others. President Obama embarked down an unethical, unwise and impractical road. Let us hope that Congress has more sense when funding requests land on their desks.
Ken Connor is chairman of the Center for a Just Society based in Washington D.C.

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