Stem-cell research must go forward

The Aug. 23 ruling by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth halting federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research has had a chilling effect on one of the most promising fields of biomedical inquiry. A U.S. Court of Appeals has stayed Judge Lamberth’s preliminary injunction, allowing funding to continue while the case is heard. But the out-of-the-blue ruling by this single activist judge is already having profoundly destructive effects nationwide.  

The National Institutes of Health allocated $131 million to 199 embryonic stem-cell research projects during fiscal year 2010. Dr. Francis Collins, NIH director, has said Judge Lamberth’s ruling threatens a large share of this research. 

ADVERTISEMENT
I am deeply concerned that up-and-coming scientists might decide to avoid entering this field because of fears their research could be arbitrarily terminated at any time. George Daley, a founding member of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, testified before my health appropriations subcommittee that the new uncertainty “completely pulls the rug out from under” scientists seeking to organize new research and hire workers.  

This is extremely unfortunate — and deeply discouraging to millions of Americans who hope embryonic stem-cell research could lead to therapies for Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries, diabetes, cancer and other diseases and conditions.

When President Obama lifted the Bush administration’s arbitrary restrictions on stem-cell research a year and a half ago, most of us thought this fight was finally over. At last, we thought, there was a new approach to scientific research in this country — one that was dictated not by politics, but by ethical science. At last, our brightest young minds could enter this field without worrying they’d go to the lab one day and find the doors ordered shut by someone in Washington, D.C.

And we were solidly on this path. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) instituted new guidelines, ensuring research would be conducted ethically and responsibly. According to these new rules, a stem-cell line is eligible for federally funded research only if it is derived from an embryo that was created during the in vitro fertilization process and was no longer needed for reproductive purposes. Couples have to provide informed, written consent to donate their embryos, and they cannot be paid to do so. With these guidelines in place, the number of stem-cell lines eligible for federally funded research rose from 21 under President Bush to its current total of 75. And the scientific community responded with enthusiasm, applying for and receiving NIH grants that are moving this research forward in exciting ways.

At the same time, of course, NIH continued to fund research on adult stem cells, on induced pluripotent cells, and numerous other approaches to regenerative medicine that could lead to treatments and cures.

Embryonic stem cells have special properties that no other cells can match, and that’s why they offer so much hope to people who are suffering. That’s why so many scientists are excited to have access to these stem-cell lines and to see what they can learn from them.   

No one knows how long it will take to resolve this matter in the courts. But I strongly believe that we have come too far to give up now. If necessary, we’ll take up this battle in Congress, passing legislation guaranteeing federally funded embryonic stem-cell research may proceed.

At my appropriations hearing, I heard from Sean Morrison, director of the Center for Stem Cell Biology at the University of Michigan. Dr. Morrison has received $744,000 from NIH during the last two years to use embryonic stem cells in his team’s search for a possible cure to Hirschsprung disease, a life-threatening intestinal illness in newborns. His research is directly threatened by Judge Lamberth’s ruling. Said Morrison:  “Blocking federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research at this juncture will certainly block scientific progress and will likely delay the search for new therapies.”     

Today, Dr. Morrison’s research and the work of other top embryonic stem cell researchers across America is in serious jeopardy. The politicians and activist judges who oppose it need to respect the views of the overwhelming majority of the American people, who want to continue this research. Indeed, as long as there is a reasonable chance it could help ease the suffering of millions of people, we have the moral responsibility to go forward.

Sen. Harkin is the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.  He also is the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies.