Restrictions on Stem-Cell Research Limit Discovery

Posted July 11, 2005 at 2:03pm

I wish all my colleagues in Congress could have heard the eloquent words of Robert Klein at a bipartisan press conference on stem-cell research in the Senate on June 29. Mr. Klein, a 36 year old from Falmouth, Mass., suffered a serious spinal cord injury five years ago, and has been confined to a wheelchair since then.

With quiet dignity, he spoke of the daily struggles he faces. Gone for him is the simple pleasure of walking through a park on a summer’s day. Gone is his morning jog. Gone too is his power to open a jar or button a shirt without the aid of special equipment.

The debate over stem-cell research is not about complex concepts or abstract science — it’s about Robert Klein, and the millions of Americans like him who look with hope to stem-cell research for new help in meeting the challenges they face.

Stem cells may one day allow doctors to cure diseases by replacing damaged tissues with healthy cells. A person with Alzheimer’s disease may hold on to precious memories. A child with diabetes may never need another shot of insulin. A wounded soldier may regain the ability to walk. But the extraordinary potential of this research will be squandered if flawed policies continue to deny scientists the chance to unlock the full power of embryonic stem cells.

In April 2001, the Bush administration abruptly shut down federal support for such research by disbanding the National Institutes of Health committee created to review grant proposals in the field. On Aug. 9 that year, President Bush restricted federal support to stem-cell lines created before that date. Virtually every scientist involved in the field agrees that this arbitrary restriction has hamstrung the research.

Dr. Douglas Melton, for example, a distinguished Harvard researcher, has developed valuable new stem cell lines, but NIH funds cannot be used to explore their lifesaving potential, because they were created after the president’s cut-off date. Melton cannot even send chemical extracts from these cells to his Harvard colleagues for analysis, if they use NIH funds.

When President Bush announced the cut-off, he claimed that “more than 60” stem-cell lines would be available. But the reality is that only 22 cell lines can be used by NIH scientists, and even these lines are contaminated with mouse cells. Each of those lines also comes with a restrictive contract known as a “Materials Transfer Agreement” that prohibits doctors from using them in patients.

Faced with these restrictions, some of our best scientists are leaving the United States and taking their skills to nations hospitable to this research. The last thing America needs is a reverse brain drain that helps other nations to take the lead in the promising new field of regenerative medicine.

Many distinguished pro-life public officials and leaders in the private sector understand that a policy blocking essential medical research has no place in a true culture of life. Embryos used as a source of lifesaving stem cells are produced in excess during in-vitro fertilization, and are currently being discarded or frozen, often for many years. Surely we value life more by using them to save lives than by discarding them.

Some respond to the failure of the current policy by saying we should explore new ways to develop embryonic stem cells. I agree. Let’s explore the potential of new discoveries in genetics and cell science to improve the ways we can tap the potential of stem cells. But let’s not restrict essential research while scientists explore speculative and preliminary theories.

Some say embryonic stem-cell research brings no guarantee of success. I agree — but not even to try does guarantee absolute failure. Perhaps stem-cell research will turn out not to cure Robert Klein’s paralysis — but is it any less worthwhile if instead it cures a child of diabetes or rids a patient of Parkinson’s disease?

Some say we should encourage research on stem cells from the blood in umbilical cords or on adult stem cells from bone marrow and other tissues. Again, I agree. We should seek help for patients wherever it may be found. But it makes no sense to limit medical research to one narrow channel when the nation’s leading scientists agree that these alternatives have a more limited potential than embryonic stem cells.

As a letter signed by 80 Nobel laureates in February 2001 stated: “Current evidence suggests that adult stem cells have markedly restricted differentiation potential. Therefore, for disorders that prove not to be treatable with adult stem cells, impeding human pluripotent stem-cell research risks unnecessary delay for millions of patients who may die or endure needless suffering while the effectiveness of adult stem cells is evaluated.” The conclusion of an NIH report in June 2001 is clear: “Stem cells in adult tissues do not appear to have the same capacity to differentiate as do embryonic stem cells.”

It would be cruel to base the hopes of millions of patients on an ideological conclusion that these experts are wrong. By all means, let’s pursue vigorous research on adult stem cells, but let’s not deceive the American public into thinking it’s an adequate substitute for embryonic stem-cell research.

Those most affected by the current restrictions understand what’s at stake. Over 140 organizations representing patients with cancer, diabetes, arthritis and many other serious illnesses wrote to President Bush in 2004 urging him to make a change. Their letter noted the grim statistic that in the period since he announced the cut-off, “more than 4 million Americans have died from diseases that embryonic stem cells have the potential to treat.”

Patients and their families deserve better. The Senate should pass the bipartisan stem-cell legislation exactly as approved by the House, and urge President Bush to reach the same conclusion as Nancy Reagan — supporting stem-cell research is the right moral choice to make.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) is the ranking member on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.