Stem Cells May Swing Voters
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They're the stuff of medical miracles, offering the promise of cures for multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, heart disease, lymphoma, diabetes, and even cancer.
Animal studies indicate embryonic stem cells may be able to cure diseases ranging from Alzheimer's to Parkinson's. Health advocates say that whether these cures come in 10 or 20 years depends on the speed of research – and on who wins the November election.
Embryonic stem cells are primordial cells with the ability to morph into any type of cell in the body. They can fight disease by replacing dying cells with healthy ones. And now they've become weapons in another battle: the fight to win November's Presidential election.
At the Democratic National Convention in July, vice presidential candidate John Edwards pledged that, if elected, presidential contender John Kerry would reverse President George W. Bush's August 2001 ban on federal funding for new embryonic stem cells. Since that date, researchers have not been permitted to fertilize human eggs with human sperm and use the resulting "stem cells" in government-supported studies. Edwards also promised to spend at least $100 million per year on stem cell research, which is three times what the Bush administration devoted to the cause in 2003.
At the Republican National Convention in August, GOP leaders were on the counter-attack. Republican Senate Majority leader Bill Frist stood before the nation and said, "The federal government is funding stem cell research at record levels. And the private sector remains free to fund and pursue any type of stem cell research. But this president will not use your taxpayer dollars to destroy human life or create human embryos solely for the purpose of experimentation."
Any Type of Cell
Embryonic stem cells form when a sperm and egg meet and the resulting cell begins to divide into a ball of cells called a blastocyst. Cells at this early stage of development are "undifferentiated" in that DNA has yet to give them specific marching orders. When transplanted to any part of the body, they can become any type of cell: muscle, skin, organ, tissue, bone or brain.
In addition to embryonic stem cells, there are two other types of stem cells: undifferentiated cells harvested from the tissues of adults and undifferentiated cells harvested from the tissues of fetuses. Though adult stem cells are used in bone marrow transplants and though fetal stem cells may be able to repair stroke damage to the brain, both types have their limitations.
They don't grow in lab dishes as readily as embryonic stem cells. They are more likely to be rejected when they are introduced into the body. And they don't migrate as readily to an injured area and form appropriate cell types.
Though adult stem cells and fetal stem cells have no restrictions on their funding, embryonic stem cells – in which scientists place the greatest hope – are subject to the Bush ban. Hoping to reverse this ban and garner more funding, health care advocates and lobbyists are putting pressure on both presidential candidates.
Supported By Most Voters
A July poll conducted by NBC news indicated that 71 percent of Americans support more embryonic stem cell research. Most Americans know someone who suffers from a disease that might be cured by these studies and many Americans will develop one of these diseases at some point in their own lives.
In another survey conducted in August by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 52 percent of Americans believe it is more important to study stem cells than to avoid destroying potential human life. The Pew poll found that most swing voters hold this view.
"This election is so close that stem cell research could become an important wedge issue," says Carroll Doherty, the associate director of the Pew Center. "Though Kerry isn't going to lose his supporters because of his position, Bush is more at risk. His views could alienate the 22 percent of Americans who are swing voters in this election."
Women – who represent the majority of swing voters – are more likely to support Kerry's position. An August survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, found that 60 percent of women support more federal funding for stem cell research, while 31 percent of women oppose it. (The comparative numbers for men are 67 and 25 percent.)
Already, Bush's hard-line stance has estranged some within his own party. In July, 14 Republicans were among the 58 U.S. Senators who sent the president a letter urging him to lift the ban. And when former President Ronald Reagan died in May, it was after a 10-year battle with Alzheimer's disease. Reagan's widow Nancy, a leading figure in the Republican party, has publicly criticized Bush for failing to support stem cell research that might have prolonged her husband's active life. At the Democratic National Convention in July, her son Ron made a speech calling for more stem cell funding.
Research Inches Forward
While holding out hope for more federal funding, scientists are working to make the most of the 19 viable embryonic stem cells lines that they can study under the Bush ban. Each line was created in a lab using donated sperm and eggs at some point before August 2001.
"Getting access to these lines is difficult," says Dr. Ronald G. Crystal, chair of the Department of Genetic Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College. "There are paperwork hurdles. There are cost hurdles. These cells are very finicky and can die easily without experienced handling. Having a limited number of lines also means you don't know if the results of your research hold true for all embryonic stem cells or just for that particular line."
Dr. Susan Fisher, co-director of the human stem cell biology program at the University of California at San Francisco, says that scientists in her lab have lost at least two years' of progress because of the ban.
"We're just dead in the water here," says Fisher. "But when we can start working with the usual amount and sources of funding, American scientists will hopefully be able to catch up."
Meanwhile, research marches forward in Britain, which last month started allowing scientists to create new human blastocysts and harvest them for stem cells. The British government recently spent $4.7 million to create a national stem cell bank. Spain and Japan are also creating stem cell banks of their own.
Since the U.S. federal government won't fully fund stem cell research, some individual states have decided to take action. This November, California residents will vote on a measure to devote $3 billion in state financing to stem cell research each year – 12 times more than what is now being spent by the federal government.
As they jockey to win swing voters in a closely contested race, Kerry and Bush must hail stem cells' promise while defusing the ethics involved.
"Embryonic stem cells have enormous disease-curing potential," says Dr. Crystal. "But this potential will only be realized when politicians and the public find a way to comfortably support this research."
Molly M. Ginty is a freelance writer in New York.