Stem cell research is a volatile scientific topic in the US, with supporters who are usually divided along political lines. Conservatives tend to view stem cell research – and particularly embryonic stem cell research – with disfavor. Thus, the new administration poses a threat to the continued support of research and innovation in this field, despite the abundance of breakthroughs already made that are on the cusp of providing lifesaving cures and therapies for millions of people.
What is “stem cell research”?
First, let us go over that exactly is the topic at issue here. Stem cells are defined by the National Institute of Health as unspecialized cells capable of renewing themselves through cell division, sometimes after long periods of inactivity.
The beneficial potential for stem cells is that under certain physiologic or experimental conditions, they can be induced to become tissue- or organ-specific cells with special functions. The research underway in this field is to determine how scientists can trigger these unspecialized cells and instruct them to become specialized and form into new tissue or organs, such as healthy pancreas cells for someone with Type 1 Diabetes, or new neurons for someone whose nerve cells were damaged by Parkinson’s Disease.
Stem cells can be sourced from embryonic tissue, which usually comes from unused and donated embryos from in-vitro fertilization treatment. Some tissues and organs of the body also produce undifferentiated cells, called adult or somatic stem cells.
Since embryonic stem cells were discovered in 1998, political and ideological beliefs have significantly influenced the support and progress of research in the US. In 2001, President George W. Bush banned federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, citing that the use of these embryos, which would otherwise be discarded or would deteriorate in long-term storage, diminishes the value of human life. Scientists have identified other possible sources of stem cells, such as somatic cells. However, the completely unsullied nature of newly formed and undefined embryonic cells holds untold promise to scientists in this field who think they may be a more versatile means of generating healthy human tissue. President Obama lifted the embryonic research ban in 2009, but by then 8 years of critical research time was lost. Some states, like California, enacted legislation and provided funding to continue funding stem cell research during the Bush ban years. California implemented a $3 billion dollar state program – The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) – in 2004 to mitigate the effects of the federal ban. This program has already committed 75% of the $3 billion, and is estimated to deplete the fund by 2020. California is now faced with figuring out how to sustain its research initiative in the wake of another possible federal funding limitation or other encumbrances that could be imposed by the Trump Administration.
An Uncertain Outlook
Congressman Tom Price, the President’s nominee to run the Department of Health and Human services, previously sponsored a bill that defined the beginning of human life as starting at conception. He has made statements that were sharply critical of embryonic stem cell research, stating that Obama’s lifting of the embryonic ban would “force taxpayers to subsidize research that will destroy human embryos.” It stands to reason that if confirmed, he will not be an advocate for continued or increased funding for embryonic research, thus once again slowing progress in this promising area.
The Possibilities are Endless
Scientists see immeasurable potential for stem cell therapy if the research is allowed to continued unfettered and with robust support. Illnesses from Diabetes, to Cancer, to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s could be cured within our generation. Incredible advances in vision restoration and burn treatment have been realized with stem cell therapy. This video showing skin restoration on a burn victim is an incredible example of the life-changing treatments possible through stem cell therapy.
It is hard to imagine a world free of the ravages of cancer, Alzheimer’s, or ALS. But, scientists doing pioneering research tell us that this future is not merely a flight of imagination, but an attainable reality. Our government has a responsibility to support the continued preservation of the health and welfare of the American people. This responsibility does not vacillate based on which party is in power. It should not ebb and flow based on partisan loyalties or ideologies. It should be rooted in sound, objective judgment and facts. The promise of stem cells is a fact. The benefits it has already yielded are facts. The need to continue to support this research is a fact. The detriment to the public health if it is not pursued, and the blame that will fall squarely on the shoulders of those who impede this scientific progress, are facts that should never be allowed to become realities.
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The views reflected in this blog are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.