|08-15-2001, 05:15 AM||#1|
Join Date: Jul 2001
Location: New Brunswick, NJ, USA
Bush does stem cells a favor?
Over the past few days, I have heard several people make the following observation... Bush has probably done more for stem cell research than any person could have by delaying the decision and forcing media attention on the subject. So, at the present, there is probably better understanding of the stem cell issue than any other biological/scientific issue in America. There is still tremendous fear of cloning and gene therapy but stem cells have a high level of approval possibly because of Bush. What do you think?
Stem Cells 101
Over the past week the American public has gotten an education in molecular biology. Thanks to the debate over stem cell research, we know much more about cell lines, therapeutic cloning and blastocysts than we ever did before. This is all to the good, because the controversy over stem cells was not ended by George W. Bush's much-publicized address to the nation. Actually, we have only just begun to argue.
The talk about the potential of stem cell research for curing diseases from Alzheimer's to Parkinson's to diabetes raised interest in the president's struggle to decide whether to support federal funding. Last week he told the nation he opposed killing human embryos to get the cells, but was endorsing research on stem cells obtained from pre- existing colonies, or lines. It is far from clear, though, whether enough of this material will be available. If not, the plan offered by Mr. Bush will be little more than a sham.
The speech was a political success, deftly steering a course between advocates of stem cell research and abortion opponents, who believe that surplus embryos from fertility clinics should be "adopted" rather than destroyed. The president's proposal shifted the focus of controversy from whether there would be federally funded research to whether scientists could get enough stem cells from the lines already in existence. Any citizens who were not prepared to pursue the debate into that obscure territory probably felt Mr. Bush's plan was perfectly fair.
But scientists are very worried that the president may be authorizing research that can never be done. No one is sure how many cell lines exist, or how good their quality is. It is not easy to develop a healthy colony of stem cells that will keep replicating indefinitely, producing new material for experiments. Cell lines are easily contaminated, and finicky. Some stop reproducing for no obvious reason.
Until last week most experts believed there were only a handful of stem cell lines, not all of which would be suitable for experiments. But the Bush administration says it has located about 60. If that is true o and if the companies and foundations that own the lines are ready and willing to make them available to federal researchers o there may not be any immediate need to go beyond the compromise the president outlined.
The credibility of the Bush administration, particularly the Health and Human Services secretary, Tommy Thompson, is on the line. If it turns out that Mr. Bush gave overoptimistic estimates in order to make his plan sound more reasonable than it really is, Congress will have an obligation to pass a more realistic law.
Even if Mr. Bush was right, his plan will not hold up over the long haul. If stem cell therapy proves as promising as scientists hope, there will inevitably be a need for more varied lines of cells. This is exactly why some anti-abortion activists are opposed even to the limited window of opportunity the president provided. But if researchers raise the possibility of a cure for Alzheimer's disease or diabetes, or a way to regenerate dead spinal tissue, the public is bound to demand a more flexible policy.
Mr. Bush, who sounded open-minded during his TV address last week, seemed anything but when questions began to arise about whether modifications would be needed in the future. "I laid out the policy I think is right for America," he said. "And I'm not going to change my mind." The president has also been cheering Congress on as it attempts to ban therapeutic cloning, a technique that uses adult human cells and embryos to create replacement tissue for the treatment of illness and injury. It is disheartening to watch the administration's pinched response to the medical possibilities that stem cells offer, particularly when other countries have been so much more open.