The Senate is preparing to vote this summer on a bill restoring funding to embryonic stem cell research. It’s a situation that should make you wonder whether our elected representatives pay any attention at all to current events.
Just this week, the South Korean government charged disgraced researcher Hwang Woo-suk with criminal fraud and embezzlement for his role in fabricating data in two highly publicized studies claiming significant advances in embryonic stem cell research – one claiming to have cloned the first human embryo and the other to have created patient-specific stem cells.
These claims helped spur the U.S. House of Representatives to vote in May 2005 to override President Bush’s August 2001 limits on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. But by November 2005, Dr. Hwang’s claims began to unravel leading to the retraction of his studies from publication the following month.
Now that Dr. Hwang’s claims have been exposed as fabrications, embryonic stem cell research has virtually no track record of progress.
No other embryonic stem cell researchers – not those who are privately- or state-funded (and not subject to federal funding restrictions) or who work in other countries – have made any advances toward disease treatments.
Progress in other research areas is even starting to raise questions about the need for embryonic stem cell research in the first place.
Researchers reported last March, for example, that severely diabetic mice could recover through over-stimulation of their immune systems, perhaps obviating the need for the development of embryonic stem cell treatments. Diabetes is a disease that is often touted as a major target of embryonic stem cell therapies.
“The findings also gave rise to questions about using embryonic stem cells as replacement cells for diabetics, a method that is the focus of intense interest. If it is possible, in mice, for the pancreas to cure itself, and if the same finding holds true in humans – which, so far, is entirely unknown – adding embryonic stem cells as the source of new pancreas cells might provide little added benefit, if any,” reported the New York Times.
Those who are not dissuaded by the fraudulent claims and the lack of progress associated with embryonic stem cell research can take comfort in the knowledge that embryonic stem cell research is already underway courtesy of private funding.
The University of California-Irvine, for example, just announced that it will use private funding to create five new lines of embryonic stem cells from embryos donated by patients from fertility clinics who no longer need the embryos and want to donate them to science. But it will take years just to create new stem cell lines before any research can be conducted.
Though there is no reason for taxpayer funding of embryonic stem cell research, rationality is not what drives this debate.
Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter underwent chemotherapy last year for Hodgkin’s disease and has held himself up as an example of someone who could benefit from embryonic stem cell research. Other members of Congress also seem to be falling back on their personal experiences with cancer and other diseases as reasons for supporting funding legislation.
With the fond memory of former President Ronald Reagan and his long struggle against Alzheimer’s disease still fresh in the public mind, Nancy Reagan wrote a private letter to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, urging the Senate to pass a bill in spite of President Bush’s threatened veto, according to an Associated Press report.
Opponents, including President Bush, have long objected to federal funding of embryonic stem cell research on moral grounds – that is, taxpayers should not be funding research that necessarily involves the destruction of viable human embryos.
But hope-versus-morality is a false choice when it comes to embryonic stem cell research.
There’s little hard evidence of progress on which to pin any hope. Moreover, the lack of federal funding doesn’t in any way impede research progress as privately-funded and foreign researchers are free to conduct whatever research they please on embryonic stem cells.
That freedom, however, has produced no results. What good can come from federal funding of futility?