Cell divisions

You could develop diabetes. You might suffer a spinal cord injury or be diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. These things can happen to anyone, and when they happen to us, or people we love, we want medical science to offer answers—or at least some hope of finding them.

Recently, discoveries have been made in the area of stem cell research that could lead to a cure for diabetes and viable treatments for spinal cord injuries and Parkinson’s disease, among other ailments. Yet rather than doing everything in its power to speed these advances, the Bush administration is poised to severely restrict or even ban stem cell research. Already, some scientists have announced their intention to leave the United States for Britain where such research is not only legal but also tax-supported.

The situation amounts to a setback for public health and a potential economic disaster for Northern California, currently a world leader in biomedical research. Yet unless more supporters of this research make their feelings known, it’s likely that Bush will make good on campaign promises to the religious right and effectively ban the study in the United States.

So what is stem cell research and why is it so important?

Unlike most cells in the body, stem cells can grow into nerve, muscle or any other kind of tissue. Researchers believe that if they can manipulate the development of these cells, they will learn to treat and cure a variety of diseases and injuries. For example, if stem cells can be coaxed to grow into insulin-producing islet cells, it may be possible to use these cells to cure diabetes. Nerve cells might be grown that could repair the damage done by Parkinson’s disease or a spinal cord injury, and heart muscle cells could be produced to aid cardiac patients.

Because the best, most versatile stem cells come from embryos in their earliest stages of development, right-to-life activists have charged that harvesting these cells for research amounts to murder. But the embryos used have come from excess stock produced by fertility clinics and would have been destroyed if researchers did not use them. Moreover, they were less than 14 days into their development and had not yet produced even the beginnings of a nervous system. Harvesting cells in this situation is more akin to transplanting organs from a “brain dead” accident victim than murder. In fact, to allow the stem cell material to go to waste when there is so much potential benefit would be truly immoral.

Still, in recognition of the moral complexity of the issue, the U.S. should adopt strict guidelines similar to those in England: Embryos should not be created solely for experimentation and should be no older than 14 days. Such research should be publicly funded to ensure maximum oversight and the fastest possible development of beneficial therapies. Anything less would amount to an enormous setback to research and world health.