Ron Reagan Wrong on Stem Cells

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Published July 16, 2004

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Ron Reagan, the younger son of the late Republican president, announced this week that he would give a prime-time address in support of stem cell research (search) at the Democratic National Convention in Boston later this month.

"Ron Reagan's courageous pleas for stem cell research add a powerful voice to the millions of Americans hoping for cures for their children, for their parents and for their grandparents," said a spokesman for John Kerry to the Associated Press.

Reagan told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the speech was intended "to educate people about stem cell research" rather than be critical of President George Bush. But the Kerry campaign seems to want to scare people by having the son of the revered late President Ronald Reagan decry President Bush and his pro-life supporters as the major roadblocks to a host of supposedly just-around-the-corner miracle cures for cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes and other dreaded diseases.

It will be a junk science-fueled spectacle.

The controversy centers around the use of stem cells derived from destroyed human embryos. So-called "embryonic stem cells (search)" give rise to all other cells and tissues in the human body and have been touted as possibly yielding treatments for a variety of diseases.

Moral concerns over the destruction of human embryos caused President Bush to limit taxpayer funding for embryonic stem cell research to stem cell lines already in existence. Researchers who were counting on taxpayer funding to conduct research on embryonic stem cells — and then rake in millions of dollars from naive investors — were enraged and began a campaign to pressure the President into opening the taxpayer spigots for embryonic stem cell research on the basis of a wide-eyed hope that cures are near at hand.

Though embryonic stem cell research advocates euphemistically refer to the current state of research as an "early stage," the unfortunate reality is the goal of embryonic stem cell therapies is, at this point, more accurately described as a pipe dream. No researcher is anywhere close to significant progress in developing practical embryonic stem cell therapies.

Mouse embryonic stem cells were first grown in a laboratory in 1981. It took 20 years to make similar achievements with human embryonic stem cells — and merely growing stem cells is no where close to employing those cells in therapies. Embryonic stem cells must be directed to grow into specific cell types and that growth must be controlled — they can proliferate indefinitely in the lab. Uncontrolled stem cell growth may have tumor-forming potential. Because embryonic stem cells don't come from the patient being treated, there may also be problems associated with immune system rejection following transplantation of foreign stem cells.

The difficulty of embryonic stem cell research is underscored by the lack of progress in cancer research. Despite a 30-year, $40-billion "War on Cancer" launched by President Nixon, researchers continue to have great difficulty in controlling, let alone eradicating, the vast majority of cancer cell growth. Conceptually, controlled deployment of "good" stem cells should be vastly more complex than simply destroying "bad" cancer cells.

None of this is to say that embryonic stem cell research can't possibly lead to some improvements in biological understanding or future therapeutic treatments, but such speculative progress of who-knows-what value isn't in the foreseeable future. The only thing certain is that the cost of that research will be high. If embryonic stem cell research had real and imminent possibilities, private investors would be pouring capital into research hoping for real and imminent profits. Instead, venture capital firms are contributing to political efforts to get taxpayers to fund research.

A proposed ballot initiative in California known as Proposition 71 (search) would provide $3 billion in taxpayer money for stem cell research. Supporters hope to raise $20 million to get the initiative passed. What the venture capitalists seem to be hoping for is that taxpayer funding of stem cell research will increase the value of their stakes in biotech companies. The venture capitalists can then cash out at a hefty profit, leaving taxpayers holding the bag of fruitless research.

The spectacle of Ron Reagan at the Democratic Convention will be sad — the disgruntled son of the beloved former president misleading the public with naive hopes while being exploited for political gain by opponents of his father's party. That cynical strategy may get John Kerry a few more votes in November, but it's not going to produce any medical miracles anytime soon, if at all.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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