The Doctor Is In: Stimulus may aid stem cell research

Now that President Obama has lifted the Bush-era ban on federally funded embryonic stem cell research, a portion of the $10 million allocated for medical research in the stimulus package will likely go towards funding stem cell research. While it may be years or even decades away, the hope is that furthering this type of research -- which only began in the late 1990s -- can result in huge medical breakthroughs.

The potential upshot is enormous in terms of saving lives -- and money spent on treatments. Stem cell research could cure or treat diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. But it also may speed efforts to fight spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis. According to the American Heart Association, about 128 million people suffer from diseases that might be cured or treated through stem cell research.

Clearly, the potential cost savings are enormous. Besides, other countries are progressing more rapidly than the United States on research in this area. They could end up patenting their results and selling them back to the United States, which would amount to a huge economic loss.

But these aren't the only reasons we should applaud President Obama's decision to reverse the 2001 Bush policy limiting tax dollars for research beyond the 60 stem cell lines already in existence. It's time for politicians to step back and let scientists be scientists. As Obama said when he announced the policy reversal, he is removing politics, religion, and ideology from science. A recent ABC/Washington Post poll indicates that six in ten Americans support overturning the ban. This is likely in part to the efforts of people like Michael J. Fox and Nancy Reagan, who have helped Americans understand the issue and what's at stake.

Conservatives, of course, aren't happy. After all, for eight years, the Bush administration injected politics into policymaking regarding scientific matters, including everything from global warming to abortion. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell summed up their sentiments when he said, "With this announcement, the government is, for the first time, incentivizing the creation and destruction of human embryos at the expense of the U.S. taxpayer."

Critics also contend that that adult stem cell research is preferable because it doesn't involve a human life. In a CNN interview, preeminent bioethicist Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania said that it's best to pursue all forms of stem cell research because scientists don't yet know which avenues will ultimately be successful.

The fact is, there are embryos shelved at every one of the nation's fertility clinics that will be thrown out eventually. Caplan pointed out that there are roughly 600,000 embryos left behind by couples who don't want them, or gave up trying to get pregnant, in the United States alone. "Those embryos' fates are sealed," he said. "Better to have something good happen -- like research for people in wheelchairs -- than have them destroyed at the clinic."

In addition, some politicians are using scare tactics to make people think unbridled, unethical stem cell research will open the door to all sorts of medical atrocities. They're inciting fear by using words like human cloning and chimera -- a mixture of species like a half rabbit, half human -- that conjure up images of mad scientists running wild creating freaks of nature. (What scientists are really doing is mixing a blood cell from a mouse with a human one in order to try to advance our understanding of a disease).

But Obama has given every indication that he plans to move forward cautiously and prudently. "We will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse," the president said in his address. He opposes human cloning. And he has put the NIH in charge of drawing up guidelines, and he has assured strict oversight of all stem cell research.

Sure this will open a Pandora's box of ethical questions, just as advances in fertility treatments have. When the first test tube baby was created three decades ago, it spawned a similar debate about the potential abuse of a new technology. Most Americans don't remember that; what they do remember is that it resulted in a revolution in reproductive medicine and enabled untold numbers of couples to have babies.

Russell Turk, M.D. is an obstetrician and gynecologist in Fairfield County, Conn. You can ask him your questions about health care issues by leaving a comment.

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