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Another Unethical and Unsound Idea, Brought to You by the Federal Government

Representative Diana DeGette (D-CO) announced the proposed government healthcare overhaul currently being debated in Congress on her website last summer as, “Health Care Plan Puts Patients First While Reducing Costs.” But like many members of Congress, her credibility is suspect on the subject of wisely investing tax dollars in order to rein in healthcare costs and to improve Americans’ health; in her case undermined by another bill she is sponsoring that will only waste money on useless and morally objectionable “research.”

On March 9, 2010 – exactly one year after President Obama issued an executive order for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to expand funding of embryonic stem cell research – Rep. DeGette along with Rep. Michael Castle (R-DE) re-introduced the Stem Cell Research Advancement Act, in an effort to expand and codify the President’s order, and thus prevent a future pro-life president from overturning the stem-cell regulations by executive order.

Putting aside for the moment ethical concerns about destroying human embryos, the bill is simply a waste of federal funds. Even if we assume for the sake of argument that the ends can justify the means, the case of human embryonic stem-cell research begs the question: “What end?” The long-desired end, that human embryonic stem cell research would find cures for a multitude of diseases, has not become a reality. No end, besides a dead end, appears likely in the near future.

Last year when President Obama issued his executive order, Dr. Bernadine Healy, former head of the NIH, commented, “Even for strong backers of embryonic stem-cell research, the decision is no longer as self-evident as it was, because there is markedly diminished need for expanding these cell lines for either patient therapy or basic research. In fact, during the first six weeks of Obama’s term, several events reinforced the notion that embryonic stem cells, once thought to hold the cure . . . are obsolete.”

Embryonic stem-cell research has produced zero cures or treatments for humans. The procedures so far are not even safe for human trials. Embryonic stem cells’ pluripotency (meaning they can develop into several different types of tissues and organs that make up the human body) has made them enticing to researchers. However, the same properties that give them such hypothetical promise present a real peril that scientists have yet to overcome: tumor formation. The growth of embryonic stem cells is simply too wild for them to be used in therapeutic efforts.

In January 2009, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cleared the first human testing for embryonic stem cell-based treatment in the United States. Yet only a few months later, in July, the FDA placed a clinical hold on the planned human trial because the embryonic stem cells had developed into tumors in animals undergoing treatment.

While scientists have yet to conduct a safe study in rats for embryonic stem-cell treatments, humans are being successfully and safely treated with ethically-obtained adult stem cells (we all have such naturally occurring stem cells in our bodies). Adult stem cell research is helping heart attack and stroke victims, and even easing arthritis. And adult stem cells do not produce tumors.

Adult stem cells have another scientific advantage over their embryonic counterparts: less chance of rejection. Unlike treatments using embryonic stem cells, which are foreign to a patient’s body, adult stem-cell treatments do not require a patient to remain on immunosuppressant drugs.

Since adult stem cells are fulfilling everything embryonic stem-cell research once promised us, why would we funnel more taxpayer dollars to research that always kills and may never cure?

Even California is waking up to the idea that dead-end science is a waste of money. In October 2009, California awarded $230 million dollars in grants through its stem-cell research program. While the program was designed in 2004, primarily as a way to evade federal restrictions of embryonic stem cell research, ten of the fourteen projects receiving state aid do not involve embryonic stem cells. The disproportionate funding of non-embryonic stem cell research reflects the facts – embryonic stem-cell research is not living up to its overblown promise, but adult-stem cell research is actually working.

That is precisely why Representatives Randy Forbes (R-VA) and Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) have introduced the Patients First Act, which is intended to ensure that stem cell research is ethically responsible and cure-centered. The bi-partisan bill supports all stem-cell research that has demonstrated strong potential for curing and treating patients and does not risk injuring, discarding, or destroying human embryos.

This bill not only puts patients first – it promises to rein in health care costs for everyone else.

Yet much like the general debate about healthcare reform – the stem-cell research debate has been falsely framed in terms of “ethics versus science.” Last year, Msgr. David Malloy, General Secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, summed it up well. The NIH, by expanding funding for embryonic stem-cell research, missed “an enormous opportunity to show how sound science and responsible ethics can not only co-exist but support and enrich each other.”

Whatever healthcare changes may be coming in decisions being made this week, let’s hope that they do not repeat these needlessly unethical and ineffective measures.

William Saunders is Senior Vice President of Legal Affairs at Americans United for Life. A graduate of the Harvard Law School, he writes frequently on a wide variety of legal and policy issues.