...Or Save the Sick?

By Arlen Specter

Published May 21, 2004, issue of May 21, 2004.
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I have a constituent by the name of Jim Cordy who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. When I am at events in the Pittsburgh area, I often see Jim hold up an hourglass to demonstrate how delays in critical medical research have left him watching the hours of his life slip away just as the sand slips a grain at a time through the hourglass.

Jim contracted Parkinson’s when he was 40 years old, and has been waiting for scientific progress against the disease ever since. Over the years, I have watched as his condition has deteriorated. It is literally a race against time for Jim and millions of others with similar diseases.

For them, the debate regarding stem cells is much more than a debate about “research.” It is a debate about saving lives.

Stem cells have the extraordinary ability to replace damaged or diseased cells in the body, and have the potential to be used to treat the more than 100 million Americans — like Jim Cordy — who are affected by deadly and disabling diseases and conditions, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, spinal cord injuries and multiple sclerosis.

Embryonic stem cells can be derived from in vitro-fertilized embryos that are developed in excess of those needed for the procedure used to enable infertile couples to have children. The in vitro fertilization process results in more embryos than are needed by the couple. There are estimated to be more than 400,000 such embryos — which are currently frozen and likely will be destroyed if not donated — available for research, with the informed consent of the couple.

The concern of many opponents of the research has been that stem cells derived from human embryos would potentially destroy life. The fact is that the only human embryos that are used as a basis for stem-cell research are those that would otherwise be discarded from in vitro fertilization clinics. This is not a matter of using a human embryo that has the potential to produce life. Rather, these otherwise discarded embryos have the potential to save lives.

From my position as chairman of the Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations Subommittee, I took the lead in allocating $2 million for embryo adoption, but the unused frozen embryos continue to grow in number.

Some say that we should ban medical research related to stem cells because it is unproven and may lead to unintended consequences. These fears were heard 25 years ago during a debate on a new biotechnology called recombinant DNA.

At the time, many believed that recombinant DNA could be used to cure diseases, while others thought the technology was unproven and unsafe. In the end, Congress allowed this research to go forward. The results are clear: Recombinant DNA has led to the development of vaccines, insulin for diabetics and drugs to fight AIDS, cancers and many other diseases.

President Bush allowed the first federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research by making funding available for research on stem-cell lines that had been derived before August 9, 2001. Originally, it was thought that 78 stem-cell lines were available for federal funding, and that these lines would allow significant progress toward cures. The president made a sincere and thoughtful effort to strike an acceptable balance on this issue.

Unfortunately, more than two years after the policy was instituted, only 19 stem-cell lines are available to federally funded scientists. All these lines are contaminated by the use of mouse-feeder cells and probably will never meet the standards required for human treatment. There is no doubt that these lines are inadequate for the quality of research needed.

Since August 9, 2001, significant progress has been made in the science of stem-cell derivation and handling. Several stem-cell lines derived after that date have been either derived or grown without the use of mouse-feeder cells — but under Bush’s current policy, these more advanced stem-cell lines are not available to federally funded scientists.

In other words, the embryonic stem-cell lines eligible for federal funding will not be suitable to promote life-saving research. With more than 400,000 spare embryos available at in vitro fertilization clinics — again, embryos that would otherwise be discarded and destroyed — there is a real question of why the National Institutes of Health funding should be available only for stem-cell lines in existence as of 9:00 p.m. on August 9, 2001. It is essential that the current policy restrictions be relaxed to allow this research to be fully explored. The time has come to expand the current policy on human embryonic stem cells so that American scientists and physicians can continue to make strides toward cures and treatments.

There is no doubt that the debate on human embryonic stem cells makes us question our priorities, compassion, morals and ethics. That is as it should be with any new scientific journey. We must choose a path that does not impede the progress of science, that gives us the best chance to help those who may benefit from stem-cell research, and that does so in a moral and ethical fashion.

Recently, Nancy Reagan came out strongly in favor of stem-cell research. She sees the chance to help others through her support of the research that might one day help those like her husband, President Reagan, who is afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. “Ronnie’s long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him,” she recently said. “Because of this, I’m determined to do whatever I can to save other families from this pain. I just don’t see how we can turn our backs on this.”

The American playwright Howard Sackler once wrote, “To intervene between our fellow creatures and their suffering or death, is our most authentic answer to the question of our humanity.” Now is the time for the healing to begin.

Before we close off the opportunity to save lives, we owe it to ourselves and future generations to at least give this research a chance. With the limited number of stem-cell lines currently available, and their contamination with mouse-feeder cells, the potential for “breakthrough therapies and cures” noted by Bush in his 2001 announcement of federal funding for stem-cell research cannot be achieved.

These therapies could change the practice of medicine forever. They also might prevent others from following President Reagan on his long journey, and might just allow Jim Cordy to put down his hourglass.

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