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HOPE Is Not Enough

We must pursue stem cell research on all ethical fronts, letting science dictate success.

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This week the Senate considers two stem cell research bills. As the senators begin their debate, they should remember that only science and not ideology can lead to life-saving cures. The Senate and the president should allow scientists to pursue all ethical types of stem cell research by passing the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, and not handcuff them with ideology.

The other proposed bill, called the HOPE Act, could marginally help some stem cell research, but it leaves untouched onerous constraints on the most promising science. Only passage of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act will allow stem cell research to progress both ethically and effectively. The HOPE Act should not be allowed to provide political cover for those who oppose research the scientific community believes is the most promising.

It has become increasingly clear that we need to update our stem cell policy to keep pace with science. Currently, federally funded scientists are restricted to only 21 stem cell lines, and these lines continue to develop genetic mutations as they age that may lessen their research value. Meanwhile, scientists have derived newer stem cell lines without mutations that have proven very popular for research.

Even the president’s own scientists have said that his policy is not working. Dr. Elias Zerhouni, Director of the National Institutes of Health, told a Senate subcommittee that “it is clear today that American science will be better-served, and the nation will be better-served, if we let our scientists have access to more stem cell lines” and that the current policy forces his agency “to fight with one hand tied behind our back.”

A few weeks earlier, Dr. Story Landis, Interim Director of the NIH Stem Cell Task Force, said that updating the current policy to allow funding for new stem cell lines “would be incredibly important.” As she explained, “science works best when scientists can pursue all avenues of research. If the cure for Parkinson’s disease or juvenile diabetes lay behind one of four doors, wouldn’t you want the option to open all four doors at once instead of one door?”

The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act would give researchers the option of opening any of these doors—allowing science, not ideology, to dictate the direction of research. The legislation updates our national stem cell policy to fund research using any stem cell lines ethically derived from leftover embryos in fertility clinics, including newer stem cell lines. In fact, the bill imposes stricter ethical standards than the president’s current policy.

The legislation also instructs NIH to continue research into alternative means of deriving stem cells that do not destroy embryos. While this section is largely ceremonial—NIH can already fund these types of research—it does reinforce that science will determine what methods are the most effective for discovering cures.

Don’t expect this part of the bill to change the research landscape, however; despite the White House’s efforts to overstate the potential of alternative means of deriving embryonic-like stem cells, it is the lack of credible science that is limiting NIH support for this research.

The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act has received tremendous backing from the American people and from Congress. Last year it passed a Republican-controlled Congress with a large, bipartisan majority, only to be vetoed by President Bush, the first veto of his presidency.

This year, the legislation has passed the Democrat-controlled House with a similar bipartisan majority. The legislation will certainly pass the Senate, but President Bush has said that he will once again thwart the will of Congress and the American public by vetoing the bill.

Opponents of embryonic stem cell research have proposed an alternative bill called the HOPE Act. This legislation, which is supported by the White House, would allow funding for stem cell lines derived from “naturally dead” embryos. These opponents may be well-intentioned but the science is against them.

This alternative method, which would also be supported by the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, derives stem cell lines from the small number of embryos that have naturally ceased developing in the laboratory setting. But the research itself is largely unproven and problematic.

One major difficulty is determining whether an embryo is “dead.” As Dr. Robin Lovell-Badge, a leading researcher at the National Institute for Medical Research in London, said, “There is no way to prove that an arrested embryo would have stopped growing if it had been put into a woman’s womb rather than a lab dish.”

Also, there are concerns about the efficacy of the stem cell lines derived from these flawed embryos. Dr. George Daley, a researcher at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, warned that “If there was something wrong with the embryo that made it arrest, isn’t there something wrong with these cells? We don’t know.”

Rather than restricting scientists to one unproven method of deriving embryonic-like stem cells, legislators should allow research to proceed on all fronts. The Senate and President Bush have an opportunity to help speed the race toward life-saving cures, but only passing the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act will do so.

Jonathan D. Moreno, Ph.D., is the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor and Professor of Medical Ethics and the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Sam Berger is a Researcher at the Center for American Progress.

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