Obama's stem cell policy is incoherent
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Pardon me, your ideology is showing

Not all barriers to stem cell science are bad, Mr President.  And the biggest ones, like greed, one-upmanship, exploitation and hype, cannot be removed by executive order.
Michaela Kingston | 12 March 2009
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"Removing Barriers To Responsible Scientific Research Involving Human Stem Cells" is the title of the Executive Order signed on Monday by President Obama. The alleged barriers are "Presidential actions" that limited the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services over the past eight years. As a stem cell scientist and an American citizen, several things about Obama’s order and his accompanying remarks disturb me.

Let’s start with the title. It implies that after Monday there will be fewer barriers to responsible scientific research involving human stem cells. Is this true?

First of all, let’s distinguish between barriers to scientific research and barriers to responsible scientific research. Barriers to scientific research include the inherent limits of human creativity and intelligence, and the external limits imposed by laws and limited resources (eg, funding and personnel).

Barriers to responsible scientific research are myriad -- and much harder to control. They include, above all, human ambition, which spurs us on to achieve great things, not only for the good of mankind but also for national and personal recognition. When this is combined with sloth and a lack of stiff penalties for the publication of fabricated data, it constitutes a serious barrier to responsible scientific research.

Another barrier is the diminishment of the dignity of a particular class of people. A barbaric example of this occurred not so long ago (with Federal funding!), when government researchers studied syphilis amongst African American men in Tuskegee, Alabama, from 1932-1972 -- all in the name of finding cures (for Caucasians).

Yet another barrier to responsible research is pressure on scientists from media hype, special interest groups, lobbyists and a poorly informed but well-meaning public to pursue dead-end research.

Barriers to responsible research

Which of these barriers to responsible scientific research did Obama remove?

You could argue that he decreased scientific competition in the field of human embryonic stem cells by increasing funding. Fewer sharp elbows in frantic races for results should produce more responsible research, right? In theory, maybe. But in practice, we scientists love to study what’s most exciting -- partly for the buzz, partly for the glory, and partly for the media coverage that will ensure continued funding. We have to eat, too, you know.

Maybe the barriers Obama removed were those which inhibited scientific research in general, not responsible scientific research. After all, everyone "knows" that Bush was an anti-science ideologue. His record must be full of barriers to science. Yet, when we focus on what he did for medical research, we see nothing of the sort.

Take National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding. In President Clinton’s last year in office, the NIH budget was US$20.3 billion. Over the next two years, Bush increased that by more than 15 percent each year. His final budget proposal granted NIH $28.3 billion. More like Santa Claus than an anti-science ideologue, I think. Obama himself only asked for a 4 percent increase over that.

Were those barriers inherent in Bush’s science policy? According to Obama, Bush’s 2001 decision "limited federal funding" of ESC research. The fact is, Bush provided federal funding for ESC research where before there was none. In 1996 Congress passed the Dickey Amendment which prohibited both the creation of human embryos for research purposes and research in which human embryos are destroyed or discarded. Two years later, in 1998, human embryonic stem cells (ESCs) were first isolated. This created a "need" to destroy human embryos. As Clinton left office, he proposed guidelines, which, had they been enacted, would have allowed federal funding of all human ESC research as long as federal funds were not actually used to destroy the embryos.

Did Bush ban this ESC research? From the media reports you might think so. In fact, Bush liberalised the law. He opened the door to research on already-created embryonic stem cell lines. Like a true politician, he struck a compromise between squelching ESC research entirely and taxpayer-funded destruction of embryos.

Bush's record

According to Obama, Bush’s decision was based on ideology, not scientific facts. Obama promises to support ESC research only when it is both "scientifically worthy and responsibly conducted". But just think for a minute. Wouldn’t it have been irresponsible for Bush to throw billions of taxpayer dollars at a three-year-old technology? In 2001 no one had any idea whether or not ESC research was "scientifically worthy". Full support at that stage would have been equivalent to parents beginning to pay Harvard tuition fees when their child was only three years old. No one responsible invests their family’s money in wildcat schemes; why should a president do so with taxpayers’ money?

But at least it’s clear now that ESC research is scientifically worthy, right? Actually, no.

ESCs may have the potential to cure many diseases. But after ten years and billions of dollars, they still have not realised their potential. In the meantime, stem cells isolated from adults have proven to be quite effective in relieving human suffering. Even better, if you’re on the ESC bandwagon, are "induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells", which behave almost exactly like ESCs but do not involve embryo destruction. These iPS cells do not involve costly embryo manipulation and can be made from a patient’s own cells, avoiding immune rejection.

Safety and efficiency issues with iPS cells will most likely be resolved in a few more years. Remember, they were first created in 2006, so they are still toddlers. Even so, just as Bush gave federal funding to the promising toddler ESCs in 2001, he also encouraged the study of iPS cells, just a year after they were discovered, with Executive Order #13435.

Oddly enough, Obama revoked Executive Order #13435 on Monday. Why? Perhaps because it contains inconvenient Bush ideologies like Sec 2 (c): "the destruction of nascent life for research violates the principle that no life should be used as a mere means for achieving the medical benefit of another".

Why is cloning "profoundly wrong"

President Obama, like President Bush, is a hard-nosed politician and makes decisions based on a mix of prejudices, ideologies and facts. Consider these sentences from his address: "And we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society."

Why, Mr Obama? Surely science does not tell you that it is profoundly wrong. On the contrary, science would suggest that if the technical challenges of reproductive cloning can be overcome by scientists in the United States, it could help to "ensure America’s continued global leadership in scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs... [which] is essential not only for our economic prosperity, but for the progress of all humanity".

If you’re from another country, I apologise. It has become synonymous with patriotism here to believe that the world will always be better off with America at its helm. I love my country; but unless we can curb our thirst for power over life, we will continue to seek cures for the wealthy, the educated and those with a voice at the expense of the poor, the ignorant, and those without a voice. We will continue to find ways of living "longer, healthier lives" until one day the words "terminal" and "incurable" really are gone from our vocabulary and we have arrived at a Brave New World.

Michaela Kingston is the nom de plume of an American stem cell researcher.

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