Politics & Policy

Patients, Not Politics

Support ethical stem-cell research that works.

Living, breathing people who have been treated by stem cells — some who would have otherwise died — are signs of the great hope of stem-cell research. Take Doug Rice, a bear of a man who was told he had months to live because of heart disease, yet after being treated with his own blood stem cells, his heart function is almost normal. Then there’s Dave Foege who also received the same treatment for his ailing heart, after his doctors had sent him home to hospice. And accident victim Jacki Rabon can walk with the aid of braces after she had her own nasal stem cells injected into her spinal-cord injury. Carol Franz is an incredible woman who suffered from multiple myeloma, a bone cancer, until she had her bone-marrow stem cells transplanted. Stephen Sprague has been free from leukemia after having a cord blood stem cell transplant. And Keone Penn no longer has sickle-cell anemia after receiving a cord-blood stem-cell transplant.

I support stem-cell research that is treating people now — the kind that saves and changes lives without destroying life. The aforementioned did not involve research that requires the destruction of human embryos. The Family Research Council has opposed embryonic-stem-cell funding bills because they would require taxpayers to fund research that requires human-embryo destruction, and because they are a bait-and-switch. The current bill, S. 5, would fund research on embryos “leftover” from IVF clinics. However, S.5 would not generate nearly as many stem-cell lines as proponents claim. As Rand estimates, leftover embryos could only generate 275 new stem-cell lines because most parents (86 percent) want to use their frozen embryos to have children in the future. S. 5 would actually create an incentive for IVF clinics to generate more “leftover” embryos, and would free up funds for researchers to create and clone embryos with their own finances. Some proponents of S. 5 claim they don’t want to create embryos for research.

But while waiting for the House to debate S. 5, Democratic House leadership on Wednesday brought to the floor a bill (H.R. 2560) by Rep. Diana DeGette that would do exactly that–create a mass market of cloned human embryos. The bill sanctions the cloning of human embryos for research — so-called “therapeutic cloning” — while prohibiting implantation of cloned embryos into a woman’s uterus — so-called “reproductive cloning.” This bill is entirely unenforceable and would make cloning human babies more likely, not less. Implanting cloned embryos into a woman would occur in the privacy of the doctor-patient relationship, and once a mother has a clonal pregnancy, what will law enforcement do? In sanctioning cloning embryos for destructive research, this bill encourages women to sell their eggs to cloning researchers, putting their bodies at risk. South Korean scientists failed to clone human embryos, but did in fact use over 2,000 eggs from over 100 paid women. The DeGette bill is a debacle. It contains a forfeiture clause that any property used to violate the ban on implantation would become the property of the U.S. government. Does that mean if a woman had a cloned baby, the baby would become government property? Since it also prohibits importing or receiving cloned embryos intended to clone babies, then if any cloned embryo is confiscated would they become government property? The only way to prevent baby cloning is to stop the process at the creation of cloned embryos. This is precisely what Canada, France, and Germany have done. Even the United Nations passed a declaration to ban all human cloning. Thankfully, the DeGette cloning bill was defeated.

Neither human embryonic-stem-cell research, which the administration has funded to the tune of over $150 million over the past several years, nor human cloning, has treated anyone of any disease. Instead of pouring more money into this therapy-deprived research, we should be expediting stem-cell research that is showing ability to treat not only cancers and blood diseases but is also increasingly helping patients with spinal-cord injury, heart disease, diabetes, and Parkinson’s. Two studies, one in the U.K. and one in Kentucky, have shown that Parkinson’s symptoms could be reduced by stimulating brain stem cells to produce dopamine. Many patients like Carol, Stephen, and Keone are being treated in the U.S. Unfortunately, many patients like Doug, Dave, and Jacki have had to travel overseas to get an adult-stem-cell treatment even though their stem-cell treatments were pioneered by U.S. researchers. Indeed, a study was just published in which a U.S. scientist used adult stem cells to help 13 of 15 juvenile-diabetes patients. This researcher had to do this clinical trial in Brazil and not in the more restrictive, embryonic-stem-cell-fixated U.S. Patients should not have to travel overseas to get an ethical life-saving treatment.

The FDA and NIH need to step up in approving these adult-stem-cell studies. If Congress really wants to help treat patients, instead of just scoring political points, they should pass a bill directing NIH to fund groundbreaking research and clinical trials using stem cells that are treating people. The NIH, led by the evidence-immune Dr. Elias Zerhouni, needs to do a better job of funding adult-stem-cell research with near-term clinical benefits, and the FDA needs to expedite approval of clinical trials here in the U.S. Thankfully, the FDA has approved trials for heart disease in Texas and Maryland, and they finally approved one diabetes trial led by Dr. Denise Faustman at Harvard (though the NIH wouldn’t fund it). They need to do better.

A bill prioritizing further stem-cell research with the greatest potential for near-term clinical benefit would bring more therapies to patients now. And full funding for the National Cord Blood Bank is a must. I just spoke with Doug Rice and his heart function is almost normal, thanks to his adult-stem-cell treatment. We could be helping the millions like him here in the U.S. Congress is too busy debating a bill that everyone knows is dead in the water. The president will veto it and Congress does not have the votes to override. Instead of redirecting federal funds away from adult-stem-cell treatments which are increasingly benefiting patients, or trying to promote cloning, we should fully fund the National Cord Blood Bank and direct NIH to increase and prioritize its funding of these adult-stem-cell treatments.

— David Christensen is director congressional affairs at the Family Research Council.

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