- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 14, 2009




With a stroke of a pen, President Obama has reversed former President Bush’s ban on taxpayer financing of embryonic stem cell research. (In a display of indifference or cowardice, he has announced he’s leaving it to Congress to decide whether and how to further lift restrictions on human cloning.)

But “embryonic stem cell research”? Now there’s a mouthful. What does that mean?

It means research that is willing to destroy some nascent human lives in order to (possibly) save others. The politically astute move by the president produced in the New York Times a beautifully self-serving Page One headlines: “Obama puts his own spin on the mix of science with politics.”

Dr. George Q. Daley, who studies blood diseases at Children’s Hospital in Boston, said private money is drying up for embryonic research, making the public money particularly welcome.

Why? Controversy may be part of the reason, but venture capital basically is streaming away from embryo-destroying research precisely because the science is moving so powerfully (at least in the short and medium term) toward other, more convenient sources of stem cells, as the science reporter for the New York Times admits:

“The Japanese biologist Shinya Yamanaka found in 2007 that adult cells could be reprogrammed to an embryonic state with surprising ease. … For researchers, reprogramming an adult cell can be much more convenient, and there have never been any restrictions on working with adult stem cells.

“For therapy, far off as that is, treating patients with their own cells would avoid the problem of immune rejection.”

Every week, more stories cross my e-mail about potentially lifesaving treatments being developed from stem cells. These stories almost never make the headline news (or even back page) precisely because they share one salient characteristic: The researchers making these brilliant discoveries do not obtain stem cells by destroying human life. And so their achievements are not “news,” at least, not big news - not a Page One stick with which to beat former President Bush and his pro-life ilk over the head.

That is, they are not that interesting to politicians and partisans fighting culture wars. They are only of interest to someone who knows and loves a person suffering from one of the diseases they may someday help cure.

Just recently, for example, not one but two potential breakthroughs crossed my desk - two very typical ones:

The Whitehead Institute reports that for the first time it has been able to reprogram skin cells from Parkinson’s patients into “pluripotent” stem cells (similar to embryonic) that can be used to create dopamine-producing neurons, while leaving behind potential cancer-causing genes. The neurons are genetically identical to the patient from which they come, which might eventually prove hugely important to patient care and is even more immediately important in testing possible new drug therapies.

Meanwhile at the 67th annual meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology, dermatologists presented study findings in which cultured stem cells and bioengineered skin were used to successfully treat skin ulcers of three scleroderma patients - a painful and incurable disease affecting 300,000 Americans. Where did the researchers get these stem cells? In small amounts of bone marrow from the affected patient’s hip.

Not news, in other words, just good news.

If you queried these researchers, they may well support lifting government restrictions on taxpayer financing of stem cell research. I do not doubt most scientists would prefer that government money came completely unfettered from any oversight. (Come to think of it, so do most bankers, most welfare mothers and most overmortgaged homeowners.)

But people betting their own money are betting against embryonic stem cell research as the likeliest pathway to cures for diseases. Companies that have invested in embryonic research are correspondingly desperately anxious to use government to commandeer your money and mine.

And they have used politics precisely to make it happen.

Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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