obama, stem cells and ending the dark ages
So yesterday President Obama lifted the restrictions on governmental funding for stem cell research imposed by President Bush back in 2001. We’re all very excited about this and I’m sure we’ve all read about this already, but I will add my two cents anyway.
In the case you are not too familiar with President Bush’s stem cell research policy, check out this NIH website. In brief, however, Bush’s executive order severely limited stem cell research primarily by mandating that federal funding (e.g. NIH grants) could only be used to support research performed on stem cell lines created before Aug. 2001. I don’t remember if anyone ever agreed upon how many stem cell lines this actually was, but the experts (and I had the opportunity to train at an institution with one of the world’s experts on stem cell research so I heard about this a lot) I think largely agreed that these stem cell lines were inferior in quality to what the current technology could produce.
At the time, President Bush instituted this executive order because of the question of when life begins and if it does begin at conception, then is it ethical to destroy embryos for science, despite any future clinical applicability. Yesterday President Obama declared “Our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values… It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.” It’s about time. Last time I checked, we aren’t living in some kind of theocracy where the President dictates scientific policy on his religious beliefs. If you want to see how well that works, then take a look at the middle east, where despite considerable wealth from oil, the state of science remains in the dark ages.
You know, I’m sure we all understand the moral and ethical ramifications of stem cell research–and every other kind of research we do. Anytime we file an IRB application for human or animal research, we are faced with moral considerations. In the case of stem cell research, religious beliefs have caused substantial controversy. But I think this was a good thing–anytime conversation is stirred up about potentially dangerous or morally questionable research, it’s a good thing. It forces us to think about it and make sure we have the right regulatory steps in place. But, when the president effectively dictates the cessation of this research then there is no longer any conversation, it is simply the execution of the president’s religious beliefs. It has been an unfortunate situation borne of ignorance and an obstinate belief; and ultimately put us eight years behind in unlocking the potential–or lack thereof (see, I’m open-minded)–of stem cell technology to address numerous human health problems. Finally, I think one point that is sometimes overlooked in the media is that this eight year delay has also put the U.S. behind in stem cell research and therefore put us at a disadvantage to lead not only in terms of technology but also in terms of the moral/ethical approach to this research. Since 2001, we have seen fiascos in stem cell research from the french company Clonaid, which supposedly helped the Raelian cult to clone humans back in 2002, to the disgraced South Korean scientist, Hwang Woo-suk, who for some time lead the world in stem cell research by falsifying results that he was able to clone human embryos and extract stem cells from them. I mean, over the last eight years when I have been watching this B.S. go on, I couldn’t help but shake my head. It was ridiculous.
Anyway, all that aside, I’m glad we’re cautiously back on the right track. And, I’m looking forward to the explosion of stem cell research and results that will come out of President Obama’s executive order. It’s an exciting time.
For more information on stem cell research, here are some potentially interesting links: California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the National Institutes of Health resource for stem cell research, University of Wisconsin–Madison Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and the Penn Institute for Regenerative Medicine.