Preserving Life or Playing God?

It has been a little over five weeks since President George W. Bush unveiled his plan concerning the role of federal funding in stem cell research. The Aug. 9 announcement — an attempt to sate groups with wildly differing stances on the issue — can be seen as a partial victory for those who advocate stem cell research for a variety of purposes.

Kenrick Leung
Guardian

However, Bush’s proposal will demonstrate, if anything, that more government involvement is necessary — that what has already been approved is far short of what is required to facilitate any sort of scientific breakthrough. With stringent yet scientifically guided regulation, the benefits of stem cell research can become actuality.

Bush’s plan allows for 64 existing lines of stem cells, which are in fertility clinics around the United States in embryos never used for fertilization, to be experimented upon with the use of federal funds. The plan does not permit the use of any stem cell lines that may become available subsequent to the Aug. 9 announcement date; until further notice, 64 is all that scientists in the United States will be able to access.

Even at this point, the Bush plan is fraught with problems. Experts have testified that the quality of embryonic cells deteriorates over time. Subsequently, it can be expected that the 64 existing stem cell lines will be subject to the same problem, leaving scientists with a dwindling and disintegrating supply.

In fact, it appears that 64 is too generous an estimate. Bush’s own Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson testified before the Senate last month that only about 25 of the existing embryonic cell lines are robust enough for experimentation.

If that were not enough, the existing cells may also be contaminated because of the way in which they were nourished. All 64 cell lines were supplied with mouse cells for sustenance, which has opened the door to contamination from viruses that these cells might carry. The possibility of contamination makes the existing cell lines unfit for use in human experimentation, thus negating a large part of the potential benefit that could have come from this group of cell lines.

The reasons for a wider approval of stem cell lines in research are numerous and self-apparent. Removing the current limitations that hem in the size of the stock of cell lines would allow the use of embryonic cells that actually have the potential to be of some use to scientists.

The possibilities for human health advancement that stem cell research promises are staggering. Stem cells are the most versatile in the body, capable of evolving into the cells of any organ tissue, given the right genetic triggers. If science can harness this potential, it may become possible to “”grow”” tissue for use in organ replacements.

Further, that tissue may solve two problems with one blow, the second problem being the body’s tendency to reject and attack transplant tissue as foreign. Through a process called “”therapeutic cloning”” — not to be confused with the kind of cloning that results in a second, identical human being — it may be possible to create stem cells the genetic identity of which is a match to a particular patient, thus overriding the body’s impulse to reject transplant tissue.

It should be made clear that U.S. private industry is already experimenting with stem cell research, as are scientists from nations overseas where the research is granted greater scientific license.

The United Kingdom, in particular, has attracted American scientists who feel that they have been unable to produce the desired results within the constraints of the American system. Unless the Bush administration gives a more firm nod to stem cell research, it is likely that other countries will eventually be host to a plethora of expatriate American scientists.

Under the current restrictions, American experimental progress on this technology will likely lag behind that of other countries, and indeed, behind private industry researchers whose companies will be able to patent and restrict the technological breakthroughs they achieve.

Misuse of this technology is certainly a threat, which any proponent of stem cell research will admit. That is where conscientious and scientifically minded legislation comes into play: If properly legislated, many of the doubts and fears regarding the potential for this technology to get out of hand will be alleviated.

We cannot expect stem cell research to develop ethically without the assistance of government, which ought to be the most vocal proponent of a technology that has the potential to help so many. The Bush administration ought not to stymie this potential any longer.

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