Saturday, January 28, 2012

Another Advance in Stem Cell Research

It may be hard to remember the media sturm un drang over the Bush administration's 2001 decision to end federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. From the intensity of the outrage you would have thought that Mr. Bush had ordered the immediate cessation of all funding for Social Security. John Edwards implied that Bush was keeping quadriplegic Christopher Reeves from ever walking again. Others were extolling the hope that hESC (human embryonic stem cells) would soon provide a cure Parkinson's and other diseases and that George Bush was an anti-science, red-necked Neanderthal.

Since then, however, research on stem cells has progressed apace and new sources of stem cells have been developed in adult tissues like skin. Many researchers who had previously worked with hESC have quietly switched over.

The difference between embryonic and adult stem cells is not trivial. Those who believe that an individual is a person from the moment of conception were understandably upset at the practice of extracting stem cells from living human embryos since the embryo was killed in the extraction. Contrarily, the use of adult stem cells which can be obtained from organs such as the skin, bone marrow, and umbilical cord blood is morally unproblematic.

Rebecca Oas reports at First Things on the recent development of hair follicles as another source of stem cells. These cells hold out the promise of curing a corneal condition that leads to blindness.

Despite such advances, when the Obama administration took office they quickly rescinded the Bush restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, but court battles have made it unclear what the future of federal funding for this research will be. As it is, much of its support comes from private sources:
For all the national angst it generates, hESC research remains a surprisingly small part of stem-cell research. Over the past five years, it has received $530 million in federal funding, only about 3.5 percent of total stem-cell dollars.

Half of all private funding and 9 of 10 federal dollars go to stem cells culled from adults, bone marrow, umbilical cords, or animals. So federal funding for hESC research could dry up tomorrow and the field of stem-cell research would continue.

"Over 80 cures and treatments have been developed using adult stem cells or [umbilical] cord blood cells, and zero using embryonic cells," says Ron Stoddart, director of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, one of the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit. "Overwhelming advances have been made using adult stem cells. Why spend money to destroy embryos when it's not necessary?"
Why, indeed. There's private funding out there for labs which wish to continue hESC work. Why ask taxpayers who believe that to kill an embryo is to kill a human being to finance it?