Restoring stem cell research – now and beyond

President Barack Obama has certainly had his plate full since he took office — the economy, children’s health and the housing crisis, all have piled up at once. He continues to take bold action that will ensure the long-term stability of our economy.

And I am proud that he has acted on expanding embryonic stem cell research.

As a pro-science president, he has taken the first step in ensuring that the United States regains it preeminence in cutting-edge research by overturning the current restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. Finally, after eight years of roadblocks, millions of patients and their families now have hope for a cure. As the chief architect of bipartisan legislation passed by both a Republican and Democratic Congress, President Obama’s decision is to be applauded.

Embryonic stem cell research holds great promise for alleviating the suffering of more than 100 million American patients who are living with devastating diseases — from Parkinson’s to spinal cord injuries to diabetes.

Even with President Obama’s action, our work continues — we need a strong federal role in carrying out this research. It is important to build upon President Obama’s executive order reversing these restrictions with supportive legislation that will prevent this issue from becoming a political ping-pong ball between Administrations.

The recent breakthrough of skin cells derived from Parkinson’s patients to create personalized stem cells has excited many scientists. These cells were transformed into the undifferentiated state of cells in an early embryo to make the dopamine-manufacturing neurons lost from the disease. This news underscores the urgency with which the Obama administration must address the deficiencies in U.S. funding and ethical oversight.

Although numerous entities have published guidelines for stem cell research, there is currently no overarching set of federal guidelines to serve as the gold standard. As a result, scientists must constantly worry about meeting a patchwork of ethical requirements. And, with the many recent advances in stem cell techniques, it is imperative we allow all forms of stem cell science to flourish.

It is important to outline the differences between embryonic and adult stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are far more versatile. Embryonic and adult stem cells each have advantages and disadvantages regarding potential use for cell-based regenerative therapies. Adult and embryonic stem cells vary in the number and type of differentiated cells types they can become. Embryonic stem cells can become all cell types of the body because they are pluripotent (a cell that can create all cell types except for extra embryonic tissue). Adult stem cells are generally limited to differentiating into varying cell types of their tissue of origin.

Large numbers of embryonic stem cells can be relatively easily grown in culture, while adult stem cells are rare in mature tissues and methods for expanding their numbers in cell culture have not yet been worked out. This is an important distinction, as large numbers of cells are needed for stem cell replacement therapies.

Unfortunately, the previous Administration hobbled our advancement in scientific research by not only placing restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, but also by vetoing my legislation. Twice. Adding to this is the absence of funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Despite the doubling of the NIH budget in the late 1990s, research funding was flat-lined throughout the Bush administration’s tenure.

By every objective measure, cutting-edge stem cell research has been significantly under-funded. Between 2001 and 2008, the NIH spent $3.7 billion on all types of stem cell research — a big number, certainly, but not the $4.83 billion received by the National Cancer Institute in one year alone (2005). Despite these limitations, there have been promising discoveries in many types of cell-based research, including embryonic stem cells, somatic cell nuclear transfer, reprogrammed adult stem cells, and more. Without the full efforts of the NIH, important advances have been delayed.

President Obama’s action means that scientists home and abroad will have a renewed interest in federal funding for stem cell projects that can move ahead immediately. In working with the Obama Administration on new legislation, we must also address the need for strong ethical oversight and national guidelines for all cell-based research.

In our current economic climate, Congress and the Obama White House will work together to find the resources to make up for lost time in the federal commitment to this research, while private initiative will once again be unencumbered. But, I am encouraged that President Obama has taken an important first step – one that is based on science, not just politics.

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, vice chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, is chief architect of legislation overturning President Bush’s 2001 restrictions on embryonic stem cell research.

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