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Half Steam Ahead: Federal Inaction Slows Stem Cell Research

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Stem cell research has slowed but not stopped in the wake of President Bush’s veto of stem cell legislation. Scientists continue to make advances in the laboratory, and states are working to fill the research gap left by the restrictive federal funding policy. Yet the federal policy is still slowing research, increasing costs for researchers and taxpayers, and allowing other countries to take the lead in the race to find life-saving cures.

Researchers provided clear evidence of the potential of embryonic stem cell research to Congress over the summer by using stem cells to help paralyzed rats walk again. This was not sufficient to prevent President Bush from using his first veto to block the legislation, but it was enough to convince a majority in the House and Senate, as well as a majority of Americans who support embryonic stem cell research. Since that time, scientists have only proven their case further by using human embryonic stem cells to slow vision loss in rats, a treatment which could potentially be used to prevent blindness.

Federally funded scientists have access to only 21 stem cell lines, which are too old and contaminated to be very useful. And while arguments about new ways of deriving stem cells continue, an efficacious method already exists and is supported by over 70 percent of the American people and a bipartisan majority in Congress.

Scientists have attempted to derive stem cells from “dead” embryos or through single-cell biopsy, a procedure used to genetically test embryos before implantation through in vitro fertilization. Yet neither of these methods has proven morally unproblematic or particularly effective, nor have they satisfied rabid stem cell opponents. Scientists are diverting precious time and resources to recreate the research wheel to comply with federal regulations instead of pursuing basic research on disease and developing new therapies using the best stem cell lines.

Scientists continue to work hard to realize the promise of stem cell research, and states have been working hard to give them the tools to do so. Both California and Illinois devoted more money to stem cell research after the Bush veto. Missouri will vote on a ballot initiative supporting stem cell research this November. And the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine announced a plan for how it will spend its $3 billion on stem cell research.

But state efforts alone are not enough. The federal government outspends state governments nine to one on stem cell research, and is uniquely situated to fund long-term basic research. States are forced to waste much of their taxpayers’ money on purchasing redundant equipment and building new laboratories so as not to use federally funded equipment or buildings for research on ineligible stem cell lines. 86 percent of state funding for stem cells has gone to building infrastructure, purchasing equipment and training researchers, not towards actual research. California will be devoting $273 million to building “NIH free” buildings where no federal funds have been used.

Other countries are racing ahead with embryonic stem cell research while the U.S. lags behind. From 2002 to 2004, the percentage of stem cell papers worldwide published by U.S. research groups declined from around one-third to roughly one-fourth. Shortly after the Bush veto, a biotech company in Singapore announced that it created stem cell lines that meet the standards for clinical use in humans. The U.K. opened the world’s first stem cell bank, a symbol of the strong support for stem cell research there. Unfortunately, the U.S. federal funding policy has created such a poor research climate that the U.K. has formed informal ties with California to explore collaborative research opportunities, not with the U.S. government.

The U.S. can still maintain its leadership in stem cell research, but the federal government must act quickly to update its stem cell policy to help American scientists compete with the rest of the world.

Read the Center for American Progress’ updated policy brief on embryonic stem cell research:

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