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Sunday, August 15, 2004

New York Times > Editorial >Stem Cell Battles

August 15, 2004
Stem Cell Battles

Stem cell research moved to the forefront of the presidential campaign last week. The Democratic candidates said they would ease the Bush administration's restrictions on federal funding and quadruple the money available. Republicans retorted that they were the first to finance embryonic stem cell research and that the Democrats were cruelly inflating expectations for instant cures. Just as the debate was heating up, two developments suggested that the Democrats were right to call for expansion of this important research.

An opinion piece in The New England Journal of Medicine asserted that many opportunities are being missed, or soon will be, for lack of federal grants to pursue promising avenues of research that have just opened up. Meanwhile, British regulators issued their first license allowing scientists to use cloning techniques to produce stem cells, thus opening the way for Britain to surge ahead in the most promising area of stem cell research.

The Democrats clearly think they hold a winning card in stem cell research because of its potential, eventually, to yield treatments for diabetes, heart disease, neurological ailments and a host of other illnesses. Although religious conservatives consider such research immoral because it requires the destruction of very early stage embryos in the laboratory, polls show that most Americans back the research for its medical potential.

The Democrats have exploited the fact that the research is supported by Nancy and Ron Reagan. Mr. Reagan was given prime exposure at the Democratic National Convention to argue that "the theology of a few" should not be allowed "to forestall the health and well-being of the many." That is why the Republicans countered with their own weapon, the first lady, Laura Bush, who emphasized the preliminary nature of the research - particularly in the case of Alzheimer's disease - and deplored any implication that cures were around the corner. In a move to head off the Democratic attacks, she stressed not the restrictions that her husband had imposed but that he is the only president to authorize federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, leading to $25 million in federal grants last year. That was technically true but glossed over the Clinton administration's preparation of far more generous funding guidelines, which were blocked by the Bush administration.

Mrs. Bush is surely right that some advocates of stem cell research leave the impression that cures may be just around the corner, whereas virtually all experts agree it will be a long, hard slog, with success by no means guaranteed. Yet there seems little doubt that the slog will be all the harder if the federal government, traditionally the main driving force in basic biomedical research, hangs back from the field. The president's policy limits federal funding to research on some 20 stem cell lines that existed three years ago. That makes it harder for scientists to do research on dozens of other stem cell lines that have since been created with private funds, including new lines that reflect genetic diseases not present in the Bush-approved lines. The Bush policy also rules out research on stem cells that are genetically matched to a patient, the avenue that will now be explored by the British while American researchers' hands are tied.

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