Narrowing the Stem Cell Research Gap

Following the tremendous success of stem cell supporters in the 2006 election, the House of Representatives passed stem cell legislation today that will expand the number of stem cell lines available for use in federally funded research. The bill passed 253-174—just 37 votes shy of the 290 votes needed to override a presidential veto.

President Bush used the first and only veto of his presidency earlier this year on the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act (H.R. 810). But leaders hope to gather a veto-proof majority in the 110th Congress to push through this popular, bipartisan legislation.

Expansion of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research enjoys both bipartisan support in Congress and widespread popular support. Between 57 and 67 percent of Americans approve of embryonic stem cell research, including a majority of both Democrats and Republicans. And only 22 percent of Americans support the current Bush administration stem cell policy.

The Center for American Progress’ plan argues for a two step process for expanding federally funded stem cell lines:

1. Pass the Stem Cell Enhancement Act. This will provide federal funding for research involving excess embryos donated from in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics.

2. Provide funding for all research consistent with the guidelines on embryonic stem cell research created by the National Academies. This includes research from stem cell lines derived from excess IVF embryos and lines derived from somatic cell nuclear transfer. Research using chimeras should also be funded, provided the project is subject to additional review to determine if there are any other means of conducting the research.

Embryonic stem cell research is currently advancing largely due to state initiatives and legislation. Regulation of embryonic stem cell research is therefore left to state legislatures and the largesse of private investors. The federal government must step in to ensure uniform, ethical research; it should:

1. Create uniform regulatory standards to ensure science proceeds ethically and consistently.

2. Adopt the procedural and ethical regulations proposed by the National Academies. Institutions conducting stem cell research should create an Embryonic Stem Cell Research Oversight committee. All procedures for procuring gametes, blastocysts or somatic cells should be reviewed by an Institutional Review Board. No funding should be given to research involving human reproductive cloning.

Embryonic stem cell research could radically improve the lives of millions of Americans. Scientists believe that stem cells will be helpful and applicable to Americans by:

  • Creating cells and tissue for transplants and therapies. Over 100 million Americans may benefit from stem cell therapies, including those with spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and diabetes. Stem cells have already been used to create liver and insulin-producing cells.
  • Improving our understanding of human development and the causes of birth defects, cancer, and other degenerative diseases. Stem cell research allows us to model diseases and problems in human development in the hopes of understanding and someday preventing a variety of health problems and conditions. Scientists in Australia have used embryonic stem cells to grow human prostrates in mice, which will allow scientists to better study prostate cancer.
  • Teaching us more about how drugs work in the human body and how to make them safer. Rather than testing drugs on animals, which frequently react differently to drugs than humans, human stem cells could be used to test the safety of drugs. Scientists in Scotland and Italy have caused stem cells to become nerve cells, which can be used to test drugs for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

According to the National Institutes of Health, embryonic stem cells are thought to be able to differentiate into more cells than adult stem cells, offering greater medical potential. The current lack of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research hurts American competitiveness and slows international research, delays the search for lifesaving cures, and leaves American scientists without clear ethical guidelines.