In Election Year, Stem Cell Question Grows Still Gnarlier

Bush says he won the war, but the prez ain't seen nothin' yet.

By Amber Fields|Monday, March 03, 2008

In his January 2008 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush claimed that research by James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin and Shinya Yamanaka of the University of Kyoto in Japan would finally end the morally and politically nettlesome debate over embryonic stem cell research. Thomson and Yamanaka had published independent studies the previous fall saying they could turn normal skin cells into inducible pluripotent stem cells (ones that are most therapeutically useful because they can become any of the 200 different types of cells in the body); Bush was saying that this new type of stem cell would give us all the biological usefulness of the embryonic variety with none of the nasty ethical hang-ups.

With all due respect to our would-be scientist-in-chief, research in this fast-moving field is likely to smudge, if not erase, the bright line he tried to draw. Take the recent finding announced in January by Advanced Cell Technology, a Massachusetts-based biotech company. ACT scientists modified a diagnostic procedure used in fertility clinics to create the first embryonic stem cell lines without destroying the embryos in the process. “The [stem cell] lines we generated are the real thing. We still don’t know if [the cells created by Thomson and Yamanaka] are going to do all the same things as normal embryo-derived stem cells,” says ACT Chief Scientific Officer Robert Lanza.

So as President Bush nears the end of his term, the future of human embryonic stem cell research is as uncertain than ever. There are ethical questions (is the ACT approach really acceptable to hard-core pro-lifers?), scientific questions (do the Thomson/Yamanaka and ACT approaches produce therapeutically useful cells?), and important political questions, in no small part because the presidential candidates are divided on their approach to stem cells.

Democrat Hillary Clinton vows to end Bush’s “assault on science” and has been the most vocal in her support of embryonic stem cell research. She would rescind Bush's 2001 ban on funding of embryonic research that creates new cell lines and/or destroys embryos. Barack Obama also supports relaxing federal restrictions on research of these dynamic cells. Obama and Clinton both voted for the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which would have broadly extended federal funding to human embryonic stem cell lines but was vetoed by Bush in 2006 and 2007.

As for the Republican candidates, JohnMcCain has taken a more moderate position. McCain voted in favor of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act and in the first Republican presidential debate he reiterated his support for federal funding. But last April he also voted for the HOPEAct, a Bush-supported "compromise" bill that would open up federal funding for research that does not involve the creation, destruction, or injury of embryos; seeing as there are not yet any embryonic stem cells lines that meet this condition (ACT hasn't yet proven that their technique poses no “risk of injury”), the HOPE funding would only be available for non-embryonic stemcells. Both Obama and Clinton voted against the Hope Act and many stem cell research supporters have criticized the bill, saying it's a distraction and diversion of funds away from the greater promise of embryonic cells.

Republican candidate Mike Huckabee most closely reflects the stance of the current administration. His election would likely maintain the status quo, advancing the “ethically appealing” skin cell-based research of Thomas and Yamanaka while continuing to keep federal funds away from any new embryonic stem cell lines.

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