February 29, 2024

Bush’s stem cell plan under pressure

George W. Bush

More than 200 members of the US House of Representatives from both major parties have asked President George W. Bush to loosen restrictions on embryonic stem cell research because they are stifling the promising field and delaying the development of cures for dread diseases. The current policy is to restrict federal funding to stem cell lines generated before August 9, 2001. The congressmen want the government to fund research on stem cell lines derived from “spare” IVF embryos after that date.

Some supporters of embryonic stem cells insist that they are taking a “pro-life” stand on the issue even if the cost of embryo research is the destruction of embryos. “I’m pro-life. Been pro-life for 14 years,” says Representative Randy Cunningham of California. “But this is an area in which we can save lives.”

The allure of better health is a winning argument for many Americans. More than one million Californians signed petitions to support a US$3 billion bond issue to fund stem cell research in that state. This was more than twice the number needed to put the idea on the November ballot paper. And in New Jersey, lawmakers and business leaders announced the creation of a new foundation to raise money for stem cell research. They also hope to raise US$3 billion to be spent developing a stem cell clearinghouse for medical researchers and biotech and pharmaceutical companies.

In the absence of funding from the federal government, leading universities are striking out on their own as well. Last week Boston’s Harvard University launched the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. This will bring together a multi-disciplinary team of scientists, doctors, and researchers from Harvard’s law, divinity, government and business schools. The University plans to raise US$100 million in private funds to support the centre.

And Cambridge University in the UK is planning to create a world- class nerve centre for stem cell technology headed up by an American scientist, Professor Roger Pedersen. Pedersen, a “stem-cell refugee” who was lured to the UK from San Francisco because of the frosty climate for embryonic stem cell research in his own country, has ambitious plans for commercialising research. He hopes to have clinical trials of stem cell treatments within five years.