Minding the Stem Cell Gap

The U.S. government can look to the U.K. for an example of research funding and ethical precautions done right.

Five distinguished panelists at the Center for American Progress’s Minding the Stem Cell Gap event today highlighted the need for the United States to lift federal funding restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. British and American panelists discussed the research investments that the United Kingdom is making, and talked about how American restrictions affect stem cell research worldwide.

The panelists included Ann Kiesling, Director of the Bedford Stem Cell Research Foundation; Angela McNab, Chief Executive at the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA); Alison Murdoch, Professor of Reproductive Medicine at the Newcastle Fertility Clinic; and Michael Werner, President of The Werner Group.

The panelists concurred that the United States government’s failure to adequately fund and regulate stem cell research is a serious international problem. Werner pointed out that states do not have the financial resources to adequately advance stem cell research programs, and called for a “broad, national, and cogent federal policy that really jumpstarts research.” The U.S. government puts more money towards scientific research than any other country. This should be a great help to world wide efforts since science advances collaboratively. Unfortunately, federal restrictions force those resources to be used on a limited number of older stem cell lines.

The United Kingdom is even bypassing stem cell research relationships with the United States in favor of trying to build efforts with California, which funds research using more stem cell lines than the federal government.

The panel’s British experts highlighted the aggressive investments that the United Kingdom is making in stem cell research, and beckoned the U.S. government to do the same. In his introductory remarks, Alan Charlton, noted that his government recently doubled its investments into stem cell research. The research is regulated by the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA), and is conducted on embryonic cells leftover from in vitro Fertilization (IVF) operations.

The British panelists emphasized the importance of comprehensive regulation in ensuring that all research is done in an ethical manner. As Angela McNab noted, “regulation breeds acceptance,” giving legitimacy to a process vulnerable to ethical concerns. Michael J. Werner expressed optimism that the United States, despite its “culture of anti-regulation,” could adopt regulations similar in nature.

Werner added that a national policy was needed because states cannot effectively fund and coordinate research programs. He noted that states spend little on research, and that the individual nature of their programs deters businesses from investing in states with different policies. “It is hard,” he said “to do business in a climate like this.”

Ann Kiesling agreed, saying that “funding is the biggest problem,” and that “bridge funding” between the government and the private sector was needed to foster research. She said scientists “hold big responsibility” for their failure to organize and pressure politicians for necessary reforms. Panelists, however, seemed to agree that the current federal policy bears the ultimate blame for the situation.

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