SACRAMENTO, Calif. — For years, some scientists and their political advocates heralded embryonic stem-cell research as the gateway to breakthrough cures for spinal cord injuries and debilitating neurological diseases.
So after President George W. Bush blocked federal funds for research using new embryonic stem-cell lines, the state of California stepped in with its own research effort: In 2004, it committed $3 billion over a decade, fueling hopes that the “Golden State” would emerge as an international center for this controversial scientific work.
In late October, however, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the agency that funds cutting-edge laboratories in the state, awarded 14 new grants — and most went to scientists working with adult stem cells, research that doesn’t involve the killing of early human life.
The agency’s decision made national headlines and fueled speculation among pro-life activists seeking to advance alternatives to embryo-killing stem-cell research. But experts caution that political calculations, rather than moral concerns, could have prompted the shift.
Robert Klein, chairman of the California agency, insisted the initiative never ruled out other forms of stem-cell research. But the policy shift signaled a pragmatic response to a changed political landscape: The Obama administration has expanded federal funding for researchers working with new embryonic stem-cell lines, and that has forced the state agency to rethink its own mission.
“It’s a bit surprising that a California institute founded to fund embryonic stem-cell research isn’t doing that, but then this is often how science evolves,” said Maureen Condic, associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine.
The new political calculation may also extend to the ever-present culture wars. Lethal stem-cell research has often been treated as a “stand in” for legal abortion.
Thus, when Bush refused to expand federal funding for this research, Democratic partisans blamed his pro-life policies for stalling vital cures. With Democrats in power, the effort to put pro-life policies on trial has lost relevance; voters and patients now expect results.
Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, a neuroscientist who serves as the staff ethicist and director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, agreed. “Abortion politics are involved,” he said. “Everyone understands that if you are in favor of abortion on demand, it makes sense to argue for embryonic stem-cell research because it’s what some call a ‘place holder’ for abortion.”
But the shift also acknowledges a changed scientific landscape. A steady rise in successful clinical trials using adult stem cells and promising studies on reprogrammed skin cells has not been accompanied by breakthroughs in embryonic stem-cell work.
“The state agency has to re-evaluate the basis on which it will continue to disburse this large sum of taxpayer funds,” explained Father Pacholczyk.
Under pressure to accelerate the process of producing cures to justify the massive expenditure, the California agency has stipulated that its latest grantees have a grace period of four years before they must begin clinical trails, an astonishingly brisk timetable.
The reality check for embryonic stem-cell research surprises no one in the scientific community, where — at least short-term — the research was understood to be primarily focused on basic research. But the science community’s blogosphere has buzzed with debate about the “overhyped” cures, and many patient advocacy groups have dampened their expectations.
“The fact that the state agency is putting more money into adult and reprogrammed stem-cell research means that they are forced to contradict” a legislative priority, suggested Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Pro-life Secretariat. “They can no longer blame the failures of embryonic stem-cell research on mysterious religious and political forces. Now that researchers have money, they have to admit it’s not working. They won the political battle and lost the medical war.”
In 2004, when Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., campaigned for president, he labeled opponents of lethal stem-cell research as “antiscience” zealots. A little more than four years later, President Obama acknowledged that such research might not produce cures for another generation.
However, the Food and Drug Administration soon approved the first clinical trial using embryonic stem cells. Skeptics questioned whether that decision was influenced by political considerations. The agency rescinded its approval in August, pending review of new data provided by Geron Corp., the California biotech company conducting the research.
Privately Funded Research
The National Institutes of Health gave the green light Dec. 2 to federally funded research on 13 human embryonic stem-cell lines, the first approved since the Bush administration imposed limits eight years ago.
While the political debate over funding the creation and killing of human embryos has raged on during both the Bush and Obama administrations, privately funded research has inexorably moved forward, crossing moral boundaries with little fanfare.
A researcher at Cornell’s Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility, Helen Liu, has employed new reproductive technologies to keep mouse embryos alive for almost their entire gestation. Liu’s efforts are devoted to aiding infertile couples, but her work could contribute to commercial efforts to exploit the life-giving properties of human embryos.
Reportedly, scientists are close to creating artificial human sperm and eggs, a breakthrough that could make wide-scale “fetal farming” — established for the production and harvesting of human organs — a real possibility.
William Hurlbut, a consulting professor at the Neuroscience Institute at Stanford University Medical Center, who is engaged in stem-cell research using altered nuclear transfer, an alternative method of reprogramming stem cells, believes it is past time to draw a bright line between stem-cell research that abides by moral absolutes and research that violates them.
A member of the Bush administration’s Council on Bioethics, Hurlbut contends that pro-life critics of embryonic stem-cell research should avoid arguments that dismiss the scientific value of this work. Instead, they should work to establish a ban on any research that kills human life from conception.
“Most members of the general public don’t realize that this remains a young science, and whether or not it has practical application is not the only issue,” explained Hurlbut, who helped develop “Lines That Divide,” a new documentary on stem-cell research that has been presented at universities and on television.
“When Bush took over, few scientists could do this research, and most focused on projects that described the cells or that figured out how to differentiate them from other cell types,” he said. “This is essential work for science.”
Hurlbut’s passionate interest in stem cells leads him to liken the field to the “discovery of a continent, but one with vast moral and civilizational importance. The right approach would be for our nation to acknowledge what is at stake and find a true solution.”
“When the state set up the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, it took the ethical discussion, put it in parentheses, and said, ‘We’ll just forge ahead,’” observed Father Pacholczyk. “As the years have gone by and there have been no clinical returns, the ethics argument is being presented again, and perhaps it is beginning to have an impact.”
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.
The debate over the morality of human embryonic stem-cell research has lost some momentum. But pro-life activists hope to shake up public complaisance in the public square and in university research laboratories.
A recent skirmish at the University of Nebraska demonstrates that this controversial research can still generate intense public debate.
During the Bush administration, the University of Nebraska board of regents determined that its medical school laboratories would abide by the federal government’s policy on embryonic stem-cell research. But when President Obama changed the federal policy, pro-life groups and their allies in Nebraska sought to block any relaxation of ethical standards.
Last month, the university’s board of regents voted on the matter, and the tied outcome allowed university researchers to work with new stem-cell lines. But critics of the board’s decision vow to press their case in the state Legislature and the courts.
“We are not going to accept this,” said Chip Maxell of the Nebraska Coalition for Ethical Research, a secular group backed by the Nebraska Catholic Conference. “Our state is overwhelmingly pro-life, and we want our university’s policy to reflect the views of its citizens. We will go back to the Legislature and get a state law passed.”
The University of Nebraska fight may constitute the most direct challenge to lethal stem-cell research in academia. It could be an anomaly, but those who oppose this research believe they just might be handed a new opportunity to forge a broader reassessment of an oversold miracle cure.
— Joan Frawley Desmond