The Big Chill: Politics vs. the Science of Stem Cell Research

by | Aug 16, 2002

Every researcher has to evaluate several factors before entering a field of study. The work should be challenging, it should be helpful to humanity — and it should pay enough to make a living. Today, stem-cell research – supporters of which hope will lead to treatments for developmental disorders and birth defects, as well as […]

Every researcher has to evaluate several factors before entering a field of study. The work should be challenging, it should be helpful to humanity — and it should pay enough to make a living. Today, stem-cell research – supporters of which hope will lead to treatments for developmental disorders and birth defects, as well as possible cures for many dreaded diseases — passes the first two tests, but may fail the third.

In a July 9 speech delivered to a Massachusetts biotech group, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said that the debate over embryonic stem cell (ESC) research and human cloning could dissuade students from entering the field. “A young person looking upon that would have to say, ‘Gee, I don’t want to get involved in that,’ ” said Harkin.

As it turns out, the debate over the somatic cell nuclear transfer procedure used to create cloned blastocysts – including debate over legislation that would ban the procedure — is having an effect on research even before coming to a vote. For starters, companies are moving overseas and universities are dropping programs.

The first to go was Roger Pedersen, one of the leading practitioners of stem cell artistry. Pedersen, formerly at the Reproductive Genetics Unit at UCSF, departed for England. In order to facilitate the research, the UK allows scientists to experiment on human embryos up to 14 days old.

Earlier this year, two scientists from one of the leading American stem cell companies, Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) of Massachusetts, were lured away by a Japanese research group called the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, based in the city of Kobe. The Japanese have a $45 million facility and fewer restrictions on stem-cell therapy.

The Chinese have been cloning dozens of human blastocysts ever since 1999. Researcher Lu Guangxiu at the Xiangya Medical College in Changsha, has simply been asking IVF mothers if they want to donate their surplus embryos, and many have readily agreed. “We’re not that far behind the West anymore,” she says proudly. Many American scientists would now agree.

Just last June, a government-selected ethics committee in Singapore recommended further research on embryos up to 14 days old, including cloned embryos. If the government accepts the recommendations, Singapore could become a prime haven for stem cell research.

Most recently, in July Saudi Arabia announced that they, too, will begin embryonic stem cell research. With an enormous budget and an existing biotech infrastructure, the Saudis hope to lead the world in stem-cell research.

Pedersen says, “The potential benefits of stem cell research promise to transform healthcare and stimulate economic growth. But they will accrue to countries where the policies and funding encourage, rather than hobble, the stem cell enterprise.”

Joseph Martin, dean of the Harvard Medical School agrees, saying, “We have this situation evolving where science will become regionalized, where people who do work in this area will, to some degree, have to decide what their work is going to be and, therefore, where they’re going to live.”

Last March, Dr. Robert Hawley of the Red Cross applied for and won the first American grant to do stem cell research, which would have used the legally cloned stem cell lines sanctioned by President Bush on August 9. But as soon as the grant was awarded, the Red Cross turned it down. Not because they thought it had no promise, but because it was offensive to certain Red Cross donors.

The Red Cross isn’t alone. The American Heart Association, after calculating that over 100 million Americans could be helped by embryonic stem cell research, nevertheless halted its support for therapeutic stem-cell research, again reacting to the concerns of several donors.

Other research is also being thwarted over ethical concerns. Paul Berg, Nobel Prize winner and professor of cancer research at Stanford, says, “If you started out with a stem cell that had a mutation that we know predisposes it to cancer, you could study the progression in the kinds of mutations which occur and what the consequences are on those cells. That’s a whole new world of experimentation to understand and ultimately to deal with cancer — and [SB1899] would prohibit it. You could not make those cells.”

Berg continues, saying “the American Cancer Society (ACS) — whose only justification is to promote research on cancer — will not fund research with embryonic stem cells in spite of the fact the scientific experts believe that such research could have an important impact on the cancer problem.” The ACS came to its conclusion not to fund research after a breast-cancer fundraiser in 1999. Several donors pulled out of the event and reneged on their contributions.

Sean Tipton, a spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, says, “I think you can assume from this decision that the political debate has a chilling effect on scientific pursuits. If you depend on funding from the goodwill of politicians or the goodwill of the public, then you stay away from controversy.” Mr. Tipton believes that the combination of a lack of federal funding and government waffling erects a formidable barrier to students who are looking for a viable research project.

Elias Zerhouni, executive vice dean of the School of Medicine at Johns Hopkins concurs, adding, “A reverse brain drain is always possible

Scott Anderson is a science writer currently working on a book about stem cells with Dr. Ann Kiessling-Cooper. Made available through Tech Central Station -

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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