Today, I attended my first Congressional briefing--how exciting! Senator Tom Harkin called together a panel of stem cell researchers to discuss the promise of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research. I was excited to attend and see what this whole “politics” thing is really about. I am excited now because I think it’s important for people to understand just what is behind the stem cell debate.
I feel like a lot of misinformation is getting thrown around, particularly relating to what can and cannot be done with stem cells. Senator Wicker (of the infamous Dickey-Wicker amendment) insisted that adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells can be used in place of human embryonic stem cells. But, let me back up a little.
There are three types of stem cells that are being studied today: embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells, and induced pluripotent stem cells. The important characteristic of embryonic stem cells is that they are pluripotent, meaning they can become almost any cell type in the body, which makes them incredibly powerful tools for research and therapy. Adult stem cells are stem cells that have already begun the process of becoming a certain cell type, so they are no longer pluripotent. Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) are adult stem cells that have been genetically manipulated to be pluripotent. However, these cells do not behave the same as hESC.
So, many opponents of hESC research say that the latter two types of stem cells are just as good, so why should we do research on hESC? As many of today’s panelists pointed out, iPSC could not have been developed without knowledge from the study of hESC. The point is that the research of hESC and the other two types can’t so easily be segregated. In fact, researchers don’t even segregate themselves. These scientists advocate for research on all three types of stem cells because each type will probably be the best in a particular application. However, because we don’t yet know where each will be the most useful, we must continue to study them all.
One big issue that often gets overlooked is that we’re actually debating whether the government should fund this research. Senator Wicker actually stated that non-taxpayer money could continue to fund hESC research, just not federal money. However, as several of the panelists pointed out, the best research occurs in universities and hospitals, which are primarily funded by government grants. We may not want to admit it, but this is true. The private sector has no interest in the most basic research, on which treatments are built, because it’s not going to make enough money to even break even.
Relatedly, there is a huge fear that young scientists will not pursue hESC research because the funding is just too uncertain right now. Young scientists, in particular, are hugely dependent on government grants to move up the system and build an independent lab. It’s already a tough field without worrying whether your research will be shut down by some injunction or whenever there’s a change in office. These promising scientists might move into different fields or, worse yet, they might take their work overseas, which will really call into question the US’s preeminence in cutting-edge scientific research.
We clearly need legislation clarifying this issue. Tell your representatives and senators that the U.S. must continue to invest in embryonic stem cell research and a legislative solution is necessary to ensure this important research continues uninterrupted.