This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Well, there goes that election-year issue. A California company, Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that it can derive embryonic stem cells without destroying the embryos. It’s too soon to say whether this will sidestep the ethical concerns of opponents of traditional embryonic stem cell research. The simple fact that such a breakthrough has happened, however, shatters the myth that President Bush’s block on federal funds for such research is killing science in America.
The technique is based on a procedure already performed on many embryos conceived through in vitro fertilization. Very early in the embryo’s life, a researcher removes a single cell, leaving the rest of the embryo intact. Although this method has generally been used to test for genetic diseases before the embryo is implanted in the mother, researchers at ACT have discovered that the single cell can be used to generate stem cells. This might assuage critics of embryonic stem cell research whose opposition was grounded on the fact that such research used to require destruction of the embryo, although some are expressing concerns about any procedure that would exploit an embryo for research.
Be that as it may — and we’re the first to admit that thoughtful people of good will inhabit both sides of this debate — there certainly is a political dimension to this breakthrough. In August 2001, President Bush announced that he was cutting off federal funding for research on any embryonic stem cell lines that might be developed after that point. Ever since, his detractors in both parties have tried to paint him and his pro-life supporters as medical Luddites inhibiting the progress of science to indulge their quaint religious convictions. Just last month, Congress staged a showdown, passing an embryonic-stem-cell funding bill that resulted in the first veto of Mr. Bush’s tenure.
Lost in that debate was the fact that Mr. Bush never banned such research. He said only that the federal government wouldn’t pay for it. As it happens, ACT is a private company that has tapped the capital markets to fund its research. It also, incidentally, moved its headquarters earlier this year to California from Massachusetts in the hopes of receiving a share of the $3 billion that state’s taxpayers have voted to devote to embryonic stem cell research over the next decade. Although the company, like many engaged in this research, has called for more federal money, it certainly appears that the money already available from nonfederal sources was enough to finance a major breakthrough.
This development may lead to more federal money for embryonic stem cell research, but even if it doesn’t that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Taxpayers will remain free to decide at the state level whether to fund such research, as Californians have. Private investors will be free to offer financing to promising biotech companies engaged in embryonic stem cell research. And adult and umbilical cord blood stem cell research will continue with full access to federal money.The latter two avenues have produced the most promising successes in tentative animal and human trials and may ultimately prove more therapeutically useful anyway since they minimize or eliminate the possibility for immune system rejection by the patient.
That is all for the scientists to determine, however. The relevant point for the politicians and the man on the street is that Mr. Bush’s decision about federal funding for embryonic stem cell research is not impeding research nearly as much as his opponents have claimed. ACT’s breakthrough is more than a scientific advance. It is a reminder that federal funding is not the be-all and end-all of scientific research.