Thursday, March 4, 2004

Ever since they were discovered by scientists, embryonic stem cells have been thought to hold both distinct moral peril and great medical promise — that they might one day be used to cure diseases like Parkinson’s and juvenile diabetes — but at the cost of devaluing the sacred gift of life. Those dilemmas framed President Bush’s August 2001 decision to restrict federal funding of such research to a limited number of stem-cell lines. However, the policy needs re-evaluation in the light of recent circumstances.

According to an unpublished analysis by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) described earlier this week by The Washington Post, of the 78 stem cell lines eligible for federal research dollars, only 23 are ever likely to be available to researchers under best-case scenarios. Thirty-one of the lines are being held at overseas labs that are either uninterested or legally unable to ship the cells to U.S. researchers. Seventeen were withdrawn, and seven proved to be duplicates of existing lines. Only 15 lines are available for federally funded use.

Scientists claim to have encountered extensive difficulties in obtaining access to those lines, not the least of which is that they can cost up to $5,000. They are also difficult to grow. For those reasons, scientists maintain that federal restrictions have significantly constrained research.

As a consequence, a team of researchers at Harvard University derived and developed 17 lines of stem cells without government funding, and plan to make them freely available to other scientists. Harvard is drawing up designs for a stem-cell research center. It is following the University of California at San Francisco, which recently founded a similar center endowed with $11 million in private funds.

Even though it may take a decade — or more — for FDA-certified cures to be developed from the research, states too are moving ahead. In California, a group is attempting to put a proposition on the November ballot to allocate $3 billion in state funds over the next decade for embryonic stem-cell research. New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey already set aside $6.5 million — of a hoped-for $50 million over the next five years — from the state budget for such research at Rutgers University.

Admittedly, no amount of funding will ever sate the desires of researchers or individuals afflicted by chronic ailments. A basic moral line needs to be drawn somewhere, and Mr. Bush is correct to uphold the principle that the federal government should not encourage the destruction of life or potential life. Yet the president may still want to rethink his guidelines for federal practice, or at least reinvigorate the stem-cell debate. Doing so will not nullify his commitment to human life. It may open the door to greater moral and medical progress.

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