For the second time in this (pre-) election cycle, the issue of stem cells has broken into the national debate. This time, it focuses not on unapproved therapies, but the entire fate of embryonic stem cell research.
Last August, Texas Governor Rick Perry made the news when he received an experimental stem cell treatment for his back, which took adult stem cells from fat and injected them into Gov. Perry's spine. Although the treatment did not involve the controversial embryonic stem cells, it was still viewed with some concern by many scientists, who claim that this specific kind of treatment had shown no effectiveness for Perry's type of injury. Additionally, Perry's influential public status could convince patients to consent to untested and unregulated procedures, which could cause significant harm.
The Perry episode came to a close anticlimactically, and stem cells were off the debate radar for months on end. But this week, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich made his stem cell plans public in a speech in Florida. Under President George W. Bush, embryonic stem cell funding was severely limited, and researchers could only use embryos that had been created before 2001 or embryos that were going to be discarded from in vitro fertilization. In 2009, President Obama overturned these funding restrictions for embryonic research.
Gingrich, if elected, will not only ban all funding for embryonic stem cell research, but will make the research itself completely illegal, even if the embryos would be otherwise destroyed after in-vitro fertilization. He also calls for an investigation into in-vitro practices, ostensibly to limit the number of unused embryos that are created in the lab. These statements come in stark contrast to two interviews in 2001, in which he argues that unused embryos that would otherwise be destroyed should be used for research.
Some have suggested that stark change was prompted by his conversion to Catholicism in 20009, since the Catholic church is opposed to in vitro fertilization on the grounds that all embryos are human from the moment of conception. Other believe that this change is simple pandering to the evangelical voter base in Florida. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, does not oppose research on in vitro embryos that would otherwise be destroyed, but opposes federal funding for embryonic research that uses other sources.
What effect would an outright ban have on the stem cell industry? Some of the furthest-along phase III clinical trials rely on embryonic stem cells, some of which were harvested 10+ years ago. Advanced Cell Technology's promising vision studies use embryonic stem cells, as do Geron's cancelled trials for paralyzed patients, which showed good results early on.
While I disagree with this position, I think it is more logical to target the source of these embryos, in vitro fertilization, than simply banning research. If the concern is with destroying embryos, why not target the field that creates so many, rather than the researchers who are working to create something beneficial out of their destruction? Newt's position on in vitro fertilization may not be widely accepted, but it may be the only defensible one for those whose ultimate goal is to protect embryos at all costs. Opposing the research on discarded embryos but allowing them to be created willy-nilly says much more about an anti-science stance than a pro-life stance.
Learn more about stem cell research at the Stem Cells USA and Regenerative Medicine Congress 2012!