Stem-cell Funds Key to Health of Scientific Progress

By June Walker

Published May 27, 2005, issue of May 27, 2005.
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On Tuesday, the House of Representatives voted in favor of the most critical legislation to impact medical research in the 21st century. With more than 200 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, the landmark Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act not only advances science but ushers in a new era of bipartisan collaboration in the name of progress.

Or rather, it should.

Reps. Mike Castle, a Delaware Republican, and Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat, were able to secure enough House support for the legislation, which lifts the limits on federal funding for new embryonic stem-cell research imposed by the Bush administration in 2001. The sponsor of an identical bill in the Senate, Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, has already called for quick action, and with the help of a number of powerful co-sponsors the legislation also appears to have secured enough backing for passage.

This broad bipartisan support in both houses of Congress, however, has not deterred the White House from threatening to veto the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act. Nor has the lock-step support of three former presidents and former first lady Nancy Reagan, plus more than 80 Nobel laureates and countless millions of Americans across the country — an extraordinary coalition for any major policy proposal.

That the majority of Congress is being disregarded is worrisome enough. But the true cause for concern is that a presidential veto of the bill would relegate American medical institutions, including the National Institutes of Health, to the sidelines of medical progress by severely limiting resources available to our most talented scientists and doctors.

This groundbreaking research has already been tremendously hampered in the United States, as scientists abroad have charged full speed ahead toward new discoveries. Just last week, South Korean researchers announced that they have successfully developed the means to produce 11 human stem-cell lines that were genetic matches of patients ranging in age from 2 to 56. And at our Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem earlier this year, scientists succeeded in showing that human embryonic stem cells can improve the functioning of a laboratory rat with Parkinson’s Disease.

While research has surged ahead elsewhere, scientists in the United States have been stymied by a lack of federal support. Four years ago, the president agreed to federal funding for stem-cell research using lines created on or before August 2001. Since then, it has become apparent that only 15 of the 60 lines supposedly available at the time were viable. Now scientists have found that these remaining available lines are not genetically diverse enough to represent the population, are contaminated with animal tissue and are not useable for human clinical research.

Those lobbying for a presidential veto of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act base their opposition on sanctity of life issues that are hollow and flawed — embryonic stem-cell research is about saving lives and improving the human condition, plain and simple. It holds the potential of leading to treatments and cures for diseases that plague more than 100 million Americans, including diabetes, Parkinson’s, cancer, Alzheimer’s, spinal cord injury and multiple sclerosis. Those are the facts.

Furthermore, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act addresses some of the most significant ethical questions that arise on this issue. The landmark bill includes the first federal ethics rules for stem-cell research: Researchers could utilize only otherwise discarded embryos from those created for fertility treatment and donated by the parents without compensation and with full knowledge of how the cells would be used.

The facts are clear, the safeguards are in place and the support is widespread in Congress and across America. As the Senate moves to consider the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, the threat of a presidential veto of this vital legislation should be rescinded. We cannot afford to lose any more time in pushing ahead on this lifesaving research — the chance to save lives must always supersede partisan politics.

June Walker is national president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, which owns and operates the Hadassah Medical Center, the Middle East’s most advanced medical facility.

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