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August 24, 2006
Should New Stem Cell Procedure Unlock Federal Funding?

The announcement of a new, non-destructive method of deriving stem cells from embryos raised hopes that the Bush administration would lift restrictions on federal funding for human embryonic stem-cell (hEsc) research. The new process takes one or two cells from a blastocyst in a similar method as in-vitro fertilization checks for genetic abnormalities and then grows the cells into theoretically perpetual stem-cell lines. This eliminates the need for the destruction of the embryo and arguable removes the moral objection to funding the process:

Now a team at Advanced Cell Technology - a private company - has found that it is possible to create human stem cells using one or two cells from an early embryo, without doing any damage to the embryo.

In theory, the technique could be used to create both a baby and a set of immortal stem cells unique to that baby that might be used decades later to cure the baby - now adult - of diseases such as Parkinson’s or heart disease.

Much more likely, however, is that it will be used as a research technique to advance stem-cell science.

The technique is similar to pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) where one or two cells are detached from a blastocyst - a very early embryo, created in the case by in-vitro fertilisation - and tested to see if it carries a genetic mutation.

Undoubtedly, this puts a much different light on hEsc research. In fact, it might force hEsc researchers to adopt this method regardless of the existence of federal funding, as any destruction of embryos will be demonstratedly unnecessary. In that sense, the new technique removes a cloud that has hovered over this science since its inception.

Will it be enough to allow for federal funding of hEsc? Politically speaking, I'd say yes. The primary objection to funding hEsc has been the destruction of human embryos. If that stops, then most of the current objections vanish. Certainly the science has other deep ethical issues, including the questions of cloning humans for medical purposes and ownership of the cells and cell lines. None of these, however, have been cited as a reason to block hEsc funding, and the same dilemmas exist for adult and placental stem-cell research anyway.

There are other problems with hEsc research and federal funding. The hEsc efforts have come up empty for the most part; the adult and placental pursuits have resulted in actual therapies and better-controlled processes. One of the reasons why hEsc researchers pressed for federal funding (and repeatedly mischaracterized the lack of such as a "ban" on research) is precisely because the science has shown no practical reward to this point. Private funding has gone towards the sciences that have delivered more tangible victories, resulting in a market decision that marginalizes hEsc.

The question of federal funding for hEsc is one that applies to most federal funding, and that is market distortion. Will federal dollars skew the research market to the point where scientists spend disproportionate resources on less-promising processes, further delaying medical advances rather than promoting them? Market forces can produce short-sighted perspectives, but I'd trust the market over the decisions of a handful of bureaucrats and political appointees about the potential of various directions in medical research.

However, I expect that these questions will not hold back the advocates of hEsc and the claims of miracle cures that privately-funded hEsc research has failed to produce. With the main ethical argument neutered (and with full recognition of the blessings of the new procedure), Congress and the Bush administration will probably rush to provide funds for hEsc research along these lines.

UPDATE: Hugh Hewitt is right about this being a victory for anti-hEsc forces. Without the economic pressure to find a non-destructive method to develop embryonic stem cells, how much longer would we have waited for this breakthrough? Would it have ever come?

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 24, 2006 6:43 AM

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» Maybe Stem Cell Research isn’t so controversial. from Blog From the Underground
They seem to have discovered a way to get these cells without killing the embryo. In fact the process seems to be so similar to what is done already in genetic screening that its amazing that it hasn’t been done already. This may seem cynical, bu... [Read More]

Tracked on August 24, 2006 10:30 PM

» More Embryonic Stem Cell Science from the "They Don’t Get It" Files. Why It Won't Fly. from Webloggin
We are lead to believe that there is no longer any reason to oppose this research on a moral ethical basis. But that suggestion intentionally ignores the very real moral and ethical questions surrounding preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) even in ... [Read More]

Tracked on August 29, 2006 2:59 PM


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