HealthCommentary

Exploring Human Potential

Embryonic Stem Cells

Posted on | February 6, 2008 | No Comments

As important as ever

Last November there was a great deal of excitement around the announcement that stem cell researchers had developed a method of deriving cutaneous stem cells from human skin without the use of embryos. Many wondered whether these "induced pluripotential stem cells" might finally resolve the Bush Administration’s embargo on federally funded progress in the field, which began in 2001. Under the embargo, federal research dollars are only available for projects that use the 21 lines of federally approved stem cells that existed 7 years ago – despite the fact that scores of new, better-quality, embryonic stem cells lines are now available.

While this new development seemed promising, it doesn’t look like it’s going to provide a magic solution. Why? Experts, such as Richard Murphy, the president of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, say embryonic stem cell lines are better suited for research because the process that creates the cutaneous cells is less pure, introducing man-made viruses into the cells that can reset their machinery. It is not known whether the introduction of these altered cells into humans might induce runaway cancerous growth. As Harvard University stem cell biologist Kervin Eggan says, "They are genetically changed in a way that should make us worry . . . Human embryonic stem cells will be better, even if they are more complicated politically."

So that takes us back to the political situation, and here’s where we stand: The field of embryonic stem cell research is now 25 years old but it is moving at the speed of light. After the imposition of the embargo, interest in overseas embryonic stem cell ventures unencumbered by U.S. restrictions exploded, as did programs in U.S. states, several of which have moved forward with concrete plans to fund research. Universities are becoming active as well — Harvard committed $100 million in funds, for example – and $190 million has been invested privately in embryonic stem cell research.

In other words, the scientific community is definitely not closing the door on embryonic stem cell research. Clearly, the Bush Administration approach has severely curtailed potentially valuable progress in fighting human disease – but the research community is undeterred.

This election year, there is a breeze of political change in the air. That means it is time to redouble our efforts in stem cell research and fully support U.S. scientific leadership in the field. For more details, watch the video embedded with this blog post. Then please post a comment with your opinions on this issue.

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