The Stem Cell Decision -- Don't Expect a Breakthrough Soon

By Steven MilloyPublisher, the Free Enterprise Action Fund

No doubt when President Obama lifts the Bush administration limits on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research today he will hail the moment as providing new hopes for cures for diseases such as Parkinsons, cancer and diabetes.

But seven years after President Bush restricted federal funding on moral grounds, it has become clearer than ever that such research is likely to deliver far less than hoped for, if it delivers anything at all. This fact should change the moral debate.

he scientific fraud committed by the infamous South Korean researcher Hwang Woo-Suk

Although opponents of embryonic stem cell research posed the moral question of whether it is acceptable to create and destroy human embryos in return for disease cures and treatments, that question is really far ahead of the facts. The only tangible benefits to be had in the near future from federal funding of embryonic stem cell research is the workfare-like employment of some scientists, more laboratory construction, and the unwarranted run-up in the stock price of the few remaining publicly-traded embryonic stem cell research companies.

The best way to understand the hype of embryonic stem cell research is to look at the truth about cancer research.

Nearly 40 years after President Nixon declared "war on cancer," scientists have accomplished little despite spending $100-plus billion of public and private funding.

You can get an up close look at this expensive failure by going to the National Institutes of Health Web site which maintains a chronology of its history. Once you're on the Web site do a page search on "cure" and "treatment" to get an idea of how little NIH has to crow about in terms of the "war" against cancer. If there was a Nobel Prize for building facilities, expanding research bureaucracy and institutional self-congratulation, however, NIH would surely win it every year.

There has been some progress made on a few cancers -- such as childhood leukemia and testicular cancer -- but even where success has occurred mystery still abounds. Treatments can work but not always. When treatments do work, no one really knows why. Often treatment success is only temporary. And the personal and financial costs of all this are appallingly high.

What's this got to do with embryonic stem cell research? Everything. Practically speaking, curing cancer should be a far easier mission to accomplish since what's involved is essentially limited to the containment and destruction of cancer cells. But so far, scientists can't even really do that. With embryonic stem cell research, not only would researchers have to figure out how to harness the developmental potential of embryonic stem cells (if that is even possible) but they would also have to figure out how to control and turn-off the embryonic stem cells since each one is a potential cancer-causing agent. All this is a tall order -- and private investors know it.

The reason that the embryonic stem cell research community has been so vocal in advocating for federal funding of its work is that private investors virtually abandoned them in the late 1990s. Private investors have learned that there simply is little hope that money invested in embryonic stem cell research will produce a financial return anytime soon. Taxpayer money, on the other hand, is a much easier thing to obtain and spend in unaccountable ways -- so that's the game being played by the embryonic stem cell research community.

Meanwhile, the public is fed lines about "cures" for terrible diseases and conditions being just around the corner if only federal funding is made available -- as if money spent automatically translates into to cures discovered. It doesn't.

Bloomberg News reported this weekend that Obama's expected reversal of the Bush policy "excited scientists and health advocates who say the action will accelerate the search for cures to major illness." Obama even talked about "curing cancer in our time" during his recent address to Congress. Such talk can only result from utter ignorance or willful disregard of realities.

Wake me up when an embryonic stem cell researcher or company accomplishes anything otherthan naming a new building or learning something that is of absolutely no practical medical value to the public. The real moral question is whether such dubious "accomplishments" are worth the price of ghastly experimentation with human embryos.

Steven Milloy publishes, co-manages the Free Enterprise Action Fund and is the author of the forthcoming book from Regnery Publishing, ""Green Hell: How Environmentalists Plan to Control Your Life and What You Can Do to Stop Them.""