Politics, money, and…stem cells


Imagine a crowd of people. Each person could represent one of the trillions of cells in your body. The basic internal workings of each one are the same but they look different, are different ages, come from different places and parents, have different roles and communicate differently with all the other individuals around them. Eventually they will die and be replaced by the next generation.

A stem cell is a type of cell that breaks these rules- a cellular rebel, an instigator. When kept under the right conditions, stem cells are capable of producing many different types of cell. Scientists claim the medical potential of these cells ranges from regrowth of entire organs to spinal and heart
repairs, repair of injury or tissue damage and reversal of the effects of cell-loss diseases such as Parkinsons or diabetes. There are two main types of stem cells.

Human Embryonic Stem Cells (hESCs) come from a fertilised embryo when it is at an early stage and is just a small ball of cells. Each hESC is capable of producing any cell type within the body. As they were only discovered and isolated in 1998, their exact function and potential has not been fully explored. Solving this mystery is ethically complicated as their creation involves the destruction of human embryos.

Human Adult Stem Cells (hASCs) are found in tissues of a developed body, for example bone marrow, blood, eyes, intestine, liver, nervous system, brain, pancreas Human Embryonic Stem Cells (hESCs) are derived and skin, but produce fewer cell types, making their from a stage of development when a fertilised applications more limited. The ethics of hASCs are egg has divided to become a small number of cells easier as no human embryos are destroyed and they capable of forming a complete embryo are already used therapeutically, forming the basis of bone marrow transplants in repair of an impaired immune system.

The story so far…

Bill Clinton, 1995. Before hESCs are created for the first time an unrelated congressional bill, The Dickey Wicker Amendment, prohibits the use of federal funding for any research involving the deliberate creation or destruction of human embryos. When hESCs research develops, the amendment strictly prevents the creation of new stem cells in the US despite most cells coming from leftover embryos created during In-Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) procedures which would be destroyed anyway.

George W. Bush, 2001
. A reinterpretation of legislation is needed to allow the US to compete with international stem cell research. Despite having twice explicitly vetoed a congressional bill called the ‘Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act‘ which would have allowed the derivation of hESCs from excess IVF embryos(2005, 2007), federal funding is extended to allow research on hESCs which already exist from a very small number of sources. The funding is highly restrictive and leads to an administrative nightmare, with identical labelled sets of equipment required in different rooms to separate research tasks that are federally and privately funded.
Barack Obama, March 2010. Removal of George Bush’s research restrictions publically excites the entire hESC research community, significantly increasing potential research opportunities.

Dr J. Sherley and Dr T. Deisher, August 2010. Two researchers in human Adult Stem Cells (the ethically acceptable, funded type) object to widening funding for hESC research on ethical and religious grounds. An increase in hESC funding would also increase their competition for federal grants. Under the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, President Obama’s policy is deemed illegal and taken to Court in Washington DC.

Judge Royce Lamberth, 23 August 2010. In a shock ruling, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment is interpreted to apply not only to federal funding of hESC creation but all ongoing federally funded research, including on previously acceptable cells. “Because ESC research requires the derivation of ESCs, ESC research is research in which an embryo is destroyed”- said Lamberth in his ruling. Research is immediately halted in hundreds of laboratories, processing of millions of dollars worth of grant applications is prohibited, and thousands of people worry for their careers as the injunction, if left standing, could result in the closure of all federally funded hESC groups within a year. Private groups could provide Judge Royce Lamberth some financial support, although this is unlikely to meet the full demand, and private groups would be potentially unwilling to invest in legally precarious research.

Confusion reigns, and extensive arguments take place both within America and internationally. Prevention of US hESC research could reduce competition for groupsin other countries, but also will hinder the development of the field and push the use of hESCs in clinical applications further into the
US Department of Justice, 9th September 2010. Having accidentally stopped the research the government was aiming to promote, the Department of Justice appeals the ruling, resulting in a temporary reprieve during which rapid processing of pending applications lengthens the time until enforced closure for a number of research groups. Many researchers wait with baited breath to hear whether their careers are still financially viable.

US Court of Appeals, 24th September 2010
. After extended discussion, Judge Lamberth’s injunction is permanently reprieved because closing many research groups unnecessarily would waste millions of federal dollars and cause irreparable harm to the research community’s reputation. But the future of US hESC research remains uncertain. Congressional change is required for the government to completely remove the restrictions on federally funded ESC research. Some individuals worry that with a new election cycle starting, discussion of such controversial issues may not be a major priority and that pushing through legislation to ensure the stability of the field may
prove difficult.

America, October 2010. US human Embryonic Stem Cell researchers are right back where they started before President Obama attempted to make things easier for them. Their situation could even be worse, as the opposition have been given hope by Lamberth’s support. The future viability of federally funded hESC studies is unclear, but they continue for the moment.

Georgia, 11th October 2010.
A privately funded clinic performed the first authorised clinical application of hESCs to a patient. Injection of millions of cells derived from hESCs is hoped to repair damaged nerves in severe spinal injury, and forms a major development in the progression of embryonic stem cell research to real treatments. If applications like this are becoming medically viable, the massive potential of embryonic stem cells may soon be realised through rapid advances and revolutionary treatments.

The science is progressing, but is still on a precarious footing, seemingly dependent on political and legal whim.


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