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Obama moves to allow federal funding for ESCR
"Potential to better understanding and treatment"
By executive order, President Obama on March 9 raised the spirits of many research scientists — and those who hope for potential cures to disease — by announcing his decision in favor of "removing barriers" to "responsible scientific research involving human stem cells."
While some hailed the decision as a move in the right direction, others oppose it from a moral perspective, while others said embryonic stem cell research is no longer necessary given the availability of other sources of stem cells.
The president's executive order states: "Research involving human embryonic stem cells and human non-embryonic stem cells has the potential to better understanding and treatment of many disabling diseases and conditions.
"Advances over the past decade in this promising scientific field have been encouraging, leading to broad agreement in the scientific community that the research should be supported by Federal funds," according to the order.
Obama also stated that for the past eight years, presidential actions by the Bush administration have limited the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services, including the National Institutes of Health, to conduct such research.
"The purpose of this order is to remove these limitations on scientific inquiry, to expand NIH support for the exploration of human stem cell research, and in so doing to enhance the contribution of America's scientists to important new discoveries and new therapies for the benefit of humankind," he said.
What did previous "barriers" limit?
President Bush made the decision in 2001 to allow federal funding for embryonic stem cell research under more limited circumstances than had the Clinton administration. At that time, Gregory Pence, PhD, a bioethicist who teaches that discipline to medical students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), suggested that President Bush's decision would basically mean "shutting it down" — at least in the United States.
Research on embryonic stems cells was allowed to continue using private funds, and it also continued — often with public funding — in other countries.
Contrary to what some might have expected as a result of Bush's actions, Pence tells Medical Ethics Advisor after Obama's decision, "During the last decade, people were highly stimulated and motivated to try to find another way to produce the same results — in other words, pluripotent stem cells, without using human embryos."
In fact, a Japanese researcher — in what Pence described as "one of the more sensational experiments, maybe of this century," discovered how to create what Pence calls "an induced pluripotent stem cell, that's basically identical to the human stem cell."
"Even with all the culture wars . . . we still somehow got to the same point," Pence points out. "Now, we have an extremely valuable other means of doing the same [type of research]. Now, which is the best? Who knows?
"It's really great that now we have human embryonic stem cells to try again, because maybe nature made them best. But now we actually have two or three different tools to use, [but] it's all very complicated by lots of different things, including technique, politics, and fraud."
ESCR brings polarization
"What isn't going to go away is the culture wars, and the politicization about this," Pence declares. "As long as people think of embryos as . . . a tiny little baby, then people get very upset when they hear about embryonic research."
Indeed, Charles C. Camosy, PhD, an assistant professor of Christian ethics, who teaches Roman Catholic bioethics, at Fordham University in Bronx, New York, thinks President Obama's decision was "a mistake."
"There are two reasons why I think it was a mistake. One . . . I'm just not a fan of research that is without [an individual's] consent and kills members of the species homo sapiens in order to medically benefit other members of the species homo sapiens."
Camosy believes that "from a biological point of view, the embryo is just a member of the species homo sapiens, at a different level of development. And Christians in particular, but, I think most people would say, particularly vulnerable members of our species deserve a special level of protection, because we have a history, especially in this country, of dominating the weak members of our species for the benefit of the others."
Deciding upon allowing embryonic stem cell research is not "doing a very good job of avoiding it," he says.
One argument in favor of ESCR is that the frozen embryos left over from fertility treatments and often used in ESCR would otherwise simply be discarded, Camosy says. He is not in favor of "fertility treatments, which he says allow for all of these "extra" embryos to be just shoved into cryogenic frozen storage."
"The reason we have all of these thousands of embryos in frozen storage is that when we do in vitro fertilization, we create too many, and we don't know what to do with the extras," he says.
Even if cloning of embryos is not allowed and researchers use only embryos that are already in existence, there is still a problem. The problem, as he sees it, is that you are destroying an embryo as a means to the end of other individuals.
"If that's the argument, then that applies to a lot of other human organisms, too," he says. "Death row inmates are going to die anyway; terminally ill patients are going to die, anyway. Would it follow that any member of the species homo sapiens can be killed if we can find some medical benefit? That doesn't seem like we want to go down that road."
Camosy suggests, additionally, that science, and therefore business interests that follow advances in science, thus far have not justified ESCR. Camosy says that ESCR is "just one of many, many, many kinds of stem cells research, and the only proven therapies that are out there from stem cell research are not from embryonic sources."
Even with such research continuing in other countries and privately in the United States, Camosy says, "We've had exactly zero therapies from embryonic stem cell research, and we're not even close. Even the most optimistic pro-embryonic stem cell research people say we're years, if not decades, away from having even one viable therapy for human beings from embryonic stem cell research."
Equalizing the playing field
Patricia Backlar, an adjunct professor at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, says she believes that "with federal funding going forward, it would equalize the playing ground. Let me put it this way . . . there's a big organization in this country for doing scientific research. So, I see [ESCR] as a great advantage that now we will get federal funding."
Backlar, a bioethicist, had what she refers to as a "front-row seat" to the ethical debates over ESCR in the '90s, when she served on President Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Commission.
Even with the additional funding, there is no way, Backlar says, to place a time-frame on the potential scientific achievements and potential therapies resulting from ESCR.
Pence says some of the "greatest medical advances in the last century" have occurred with stem cell research. He also says the American budget for medical research, including the NIH and other agencies, is like the great treasure chest of the world for science.
"Previously, under George W. Bush, things couldn't be linked. You couldn't use the treasure chest for one of the greatest advances in medicine. It's absurd," Pence says.
Still, he suggests that there have been "many grandiose and alarmist claims made about human embryos and what will happen if we use them. Grandiose in terms of the medical benefits — alarmist in terms of damage to little babies or to society."
Likening the amount of U.S. funds available for research to a treasure chest, he says that's why you could see "all those scientists very happy" on the day that Obama announced his decision in The White House, "because now there's a chance that things can really move forward," Pence says.
'I don't think [the advances are] going to be as rapid as, say, Michael J. Fox hopes and needs, and that's unfortunate," Pence says. "But Mother Nature just doesn't give up her secrets so fast. We're on the right track now."