American scientists should be leaders and not stragglers in the race to improve quality-of-life for patients with neurodegenerative diseases, cancer, diabetes, spinal cord injuries, stroke, burns, heart disease, arthritis, or even organ failure. President Barack Obama*s decision to lift the 2001 ban that had severely restricted stem cell research, coupled with his emphasis on the need for strong ethical guidelines to govern all such efforts, will help to position the United States as a leader in fundamental research and ultimately in the quest for crucial medical breakthroughs.
Stem cells are of course key biological building blocks, potentially capable of morphing into every organ, tissue, and cell in the human body. Harnessing these uniquely versatile cells might someday yield new cells and tissues to treat an array of conditions.
Those who oppose extracting stem cells from very early-stage embryos called blastocysts have sometimes argued that other types of cells may suggest a suitable alternate to embryonic stem cells. Indeed, scientists have managed to reprogram human "somatic" cells, which have already assumed a specialized role in the body, giving these cells many of the characteristics of embryonic stem cells. Ultimately, the hope is that these "induced pluripotent stem cells," also called "iPS cells," might be used to generate genetically matched healthy cells to replace diseased ones.
Although this field is extremely exciting, it will require additional, carefully documented research to understand the full potential of the adult stem cells, and in particular how they compare to embryonic stem cells. These alternative approaches are only the first step on a long road toward eventual therapies. In the meantime, finding new treatments for patients in need will require pushing forward to better leverage the full potential of embryonic stem cells, too.
Under the President*s executive order of March 9, federally funded researchers who had been restricted to working with only 21 pre-existing stem cell lines will now be able to use other promising lines developed all over the world. It must be emphasized, however, that those who receive federal support still may not conduct research directly on embryos. Furthermore, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been directed by the President to develop a set of ethical guidelines for the conduct of research on embryonic stem cells. Ensuring that this area of research is conducted in an ethical manner is one that AAAS has supported and addressed since embryonic stem cells were discovered in 1998.
As stem cell research advances, policy-makers will be challenged to confront difficult questions at the intersection of science and personal values. But surveys have shown that most Americans favor using embryonic stem cells to work toward medical breakthroughs. Research!America, for instance, a respected public health advocacy group, has reported that six in 10 Americans (58%) say they support using embryonic stem cells in medical research. The President meanwhile is taking a wise approach by allowing embryonic stem cell research to proceed, yet while making it clear that transparency and strict ethical scrutiny of all such investigations will be mandatory. He further emphasized that the United States "will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction" -- a position shared by AAAS and society at large. Science and technology are wellsprings of economic progress.
At a time when the nation is experiencing the largest number of job losses since 1945, the President*s support for scientific advances, and his pledge to promote scientific integrity, are welcome and encouraging signs.