Yesterday’s announcement that scientists had created embryonic-like stem cells without destroying embryos is a major step forward for the field. Today, the House has a similar opportunity to advance stem cell research by passing legislation to update our federal stem cell policy.
President Bush will then have his own chance to give hope to millions of suffering Americans by signing the bill into law. It would be shameful if even this new breakthrough was not enough to convince stem cell opponents of the importance of pursuing this research on all fronts.
The embryonic-like stem cells scientists have created through reprogramming the adult cells of mice could be a tremendous boon to research. Because the cells are reprogrammed adult cells, they can be taken from animals (and some day potentially from humans) with specific medical conditions, allowing scientists to better study disease development in the search for a cure.
In tandem with recent announcements that scientists have used embryonic stem cells to create insulin-producing cells that could treat diabetes, are planning to use embryonic stem cells to treat a form of blindness, and have developed more efficient means of cultivating stem cells that will aid treatment, the promise of this field continues to be demonstrated.
While the advance in reprogramming adult cells is a breakthrough, it does not remove the need to support embryonic stem cell research. The new cells will likely be of great help in the lab, but have less therapeutic potential. To date, the technique has only been successful in mice, and scientists expect it will take time to adapt it for use with human cells.
Moreover, it is unlikely the cells could be used for treatment any time soon, because of the method used to reprogram them. Dr. Rudolph Jaenisch, the lead scientist in the experiment, said “we would never transplant [these cells] into a patient” and stressed the need to pursue alternative methods for clinical purposes.
What this advance does show is the need to pursue stem cell research on all fronts. Different types of cells derived through different methods will all be useful in improving our scientific knowledge of cell and disease development, and thus speed the race to life-saving cures. But we should not limit our search because of narrow ideological reasons. As Dr. Story Landis, interim Director of the National Institutes of Health Stem Cell Taskforce, said:
“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?”
Legislation like the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act makes sure that no doors are closed to researchers, letting science and not ideology dictate research. The bill updates our national stem cell policy so that, in the words of NIH Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni, “American science would be better served [and] the nation would be better served.”
The legislation now before Congress also supports other means of deriving stem cells, including those used in the recent breakthrough, making sure no stone is left unturned in the hunt for cures. In light of these recent advances, one would hope that the House shows even stronger support for embryonic stem cell research than it did in January.
Scientists continue to demonstrate these cells’ promise, even though Zerhouni stated that the current policy forces them to “fight with one hand behind our backs.” Imagine if we let them pursue this research full bore. Now more than ever, one would hope that the president and other opponents of the bill would stop standing in the way of potential cures and the will of the American people.
This legislation has strong, bipartisan support in Congress and from the American public—a recent poll by the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research suggests that nearly 60 percent of Americans want the president to sign this bill. So, too, do the researchers behind this most recent breakthrough. Dr. Kevin Eggan, one of the leading scientists on this work, said “we all want embryonic stem cell research to move forward.”
Time and time again, scientists have demonstrated loud and clear the potential of stem cell research to help millions of Americans. Now is the time for the House and the president to show they’ve been listening.
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.