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Stem cell research faces uncertain future after the elections

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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elections stem cell research fundingNEW YORK—With a Republican majority getting set to move into the House of Representatives in January—and fewer Democrats returning to the Senate—the upcoming lame-duck congressional session might be a key window for securing the future of stem cell research in the U.S.

After a surprise August injunction—and the subsequent, still-in-effect stay—on federally funded stem cell research, the issue remains in both legal and legislative limbo. And with so many other pressing national issues, such as the economy and international security, scientists hoping for more stability in the government’s ability to fund human embryonic stem cell research worry that if a legislative conclusion isn’t reached before the end of the year, the political climate in 2011 will be less amenable to the idea.

"It’s not going to make it easy," Susan Solomon, co-founder and CEO of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, said of Tuesday’s election results in a meeting at foundation’s labs in uptown New York City.

But stem cell research doesn’t have to be a partisan issue, Solomon pointed out, noting that their foundation has plenty of Republicans among its financial supporters. Their support often comes from the personal experience, she said, of knowing someone who has a disease that stem cell research might someday help to cure—or at least treat.

Many in the field have their hopes set on Rep. Mike Castle (R–Del.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (D–Pa.), who are both facing the ends of their long congressional careers and might be looking for a final victory on which to hang their names.

Although NYSCF is privately funded and thus immune to government funding fluctuations, Solomon pointed out that U.S. federal government is a "huge motor of biomedical research in the world." And the court injunction, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Francis Collins has said, "poured sand into that engine of discovery." The NIH has allocated $1.1 billion of its 2011 budget for stem cell research (which includes money for all forms of stem cell research, including human embryonic, induced pluripotent and adult stem cell projects).

Any of that money earmarked for embryonic stem cell research, however, could be cut off if either the courts or Congress decide not to continue funding the work. "The outlook for stem cells is even less certain now than it was yesterday," Jennifer Zeitzer of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology told Science Insider on Wednesday.

And even though federally funded research has been allowed to continue for now, the uncertainty itself can be harmful to the field, Solomon said. "You need stability and continuity" to support ongoing research—and as a signal to early career researchers ("the water’s fine, come on in," Solomon said). For now, though, those in stem cell research "don’t know where we stand, and that’s just unacceptable," she noted.

Oral arguments in the injunction appeals case are scheduled for December 6.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/VladimirCetinski

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  1. 1. fthoma 7:57 pm 11/5/2010

    There is no constraint on private expenditure for stem cell research, only Federal funds. If there is a huge payback associated with stem cell research then there is no lack of private backing available. The public purse should not be a source of funding for sandbox projects.

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  2. 2. fthoma 8:00 pm 11/5/2010

    There has been some success with research associated with adult stem cells, but, over the years, there has been none for embryonic stem cell research. What is the public benefit associated with pouring public money into a dead end? If there was even a glimmer of success than private funds would be available.

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  3. 3. fthoma 8:03 pm 11/5/2010

    The court found in favor of the law. If you don’t like the law there is an avenue available to change it, called the legislature. The courts should not be expected to change the law to suit the whim of some otherwise out of work lab workers.

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  4. 4. phytochemist 12:06 pm 11/6/2010

    Using stem cells in research should not be an issue of politics. Embryonic stem cells are critical to understanding a wide variety of illnesses and disease mechanisms – far more than most people realize. There is the possibility of huge payoffs.
    Recent NY Times coverage of cancer stem cells:

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  5. 5. quovadislifecoach 4:59 pm 11/6/2010

    Dear Phytochemist,
    Any action, whether private or public, that involves human life (especially when it involves innocent human life, as does the life of human at an embryonic stage of development) is a matter for public scrutiny. You appear to label as "politics" the public conversation over the legality and ethics of experimentation on human embryos. It will remain a matter for public conversation and action from our lawfully elected representatives as long as people such as yourself believe that embryonic human life is not worthy of public defense.

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  6. 6. photon137 10:33 pm 11/6/2010

    Why should the destruction of fertilized embryos for stem cells be an issue for public scrutiny when we don’t care about their destruction for others? The fact remains this, most of the fertilized embryos are destroyed after couples no longer need them but all opponents to stem cell research never mention that. The whole debate sounds like these embryos are destroyed solely for the purpose to harvest stem cells. They are not.

    Given the philosophy that these embryos are "innocent human lives" shouldn’t you be advocating that no embryo be destroyed and all be used, either by the couple or a family that wants them? Shouldn’t the matter be decided by the couple in question as to what happens to their own genetic material?

    One fact remains, given the ultimate destruction of unused embryos about 60% of couples would be willing to donate their embryos for scientific research. Shouldn’t their opinions matter as well?

    Why isn’t there a similar outcry to IVF as that procedure is the reason for the destruction of fertilized embryos? Why the opposition to stem cells?

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  7. 7. kjbach 12:07 am 11/7/2010

    Couldn’t help but notice your some of your phraseology, e.g. "…sandbox projects, … glimmer of success, … out of work lab workers…". Seems like you keep your religious and/or political views handy.
    Thanks for sharing.

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  8. 8. Zhukov1 1:00 pm 11/9/2010

    I’m so tired of religious people claiming that a zyghot or embryo has the same value as a valedictorian.

    They are different and should be treated differently. It’s not ethics or politics, it’s religion. There’s no magic in the fertilization process. It’s a bunch of molecules reacting according to laws of nature. To call an embryonic blob, with no organs, nervous system, or intelligence, a person is totally absurd.

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