All three major presidential candidates — Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) — have expressed support for stem cell research, but how those varying degrees of support might affect federal policy remains unclear.
Also unclear is what effect — if any — a new resident in the White House might have on California’s stem cell research agency, which was created partly in response to policies of the current administration.
In August 2001, President Bush issued an executive order restricting federally funded stem cell research on human embryonic stem cells to cell lines already created, in essence denying federal money to programs that use new human embryonic stem cell lines.
Partly in response to the federal policy, stem cell research advocates in California put Proposition 71 on the November 2004 ballot. Voters approved the measure, which created the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to administer $3 billion in state funds for stem cell research at California universities and research institutions over a 10-year period.
CIRM is now the biggest financial backer of human embryonic stem cell research in the world.
“We really don’t view the change of administration as having a significant impact on us,” said Don Gibbons, chief communications officer for CIRM.
“If you look at the National Institutes of Health grant patterns over the past five years, you’ll see first-time applicants are down to about 5%, dramatically lower than what they used to be,” Gibbons said.
“If NIH is allowed to fund new stem cell research — and we do believe that will happen — it will improve the chances of significant progress,” Gibbons said. “Our director met with their director recently, and the NIH director said they view us being here as an absolute win-win situation,” Gibbons said.
CIRM President Alan Trounson and NIH Director Elias Zerhouni met two weeks ago, just before the California institute announced $271 million in grants to 12 institutions to build stem cell research facilities throughout California. So far, CIRM has approved 168 research and facility grants totaling more than $530 million.
Moral and ethical questions surrounding the use of human embryos in research will confront the next president, just as they have previous presidents.
Before Bush’s ban on using federal money to work with new human embryonic stem cell lines, Congress approved an appropriations bill in 1995 that included the Dickey Amendment, prohibiting federal funds to be used for research in which human embryos would be either created or destroyed.
Stem cells have the ability to divide and multiply like most cells, but they also can take on characteristics of specialized cell types. The most desirable stem cells for research — known as pluripotent — are able to replicate themselves into any of the three basic tissue types – endoderm (lungs, gastrointestinal tract, stomach lining), mesoderm (muscle, bone, blood) or ectoderm (nervous system and epidermal tissues).
Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent and especially valuable to researchers because of their regenerative potential. Stem cell research promises new therapies for chronic diseases and debilitating injuries.
To help navigate the issue, former President Clinton formed an advisory panel, and President Bush followed suit with his President’s Council on Bioethics.
Two California members of the council — William Hurlbut, a physician and consulting professor in the Neuroscience Institute at Stanford University Medical Center, and Michael Gazzaniga, director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at UC-Santa Barbara — offer different perspectives on the issues.
Hurlbut — best known as a proponent of “altered nuclear transfer,” a method of obtaining pluripotent stem cells without the creation or destruction of human embryos — was asked earlier this month to consult with McCain, the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee for president.
“I found him to be very attentive and truly concerned about the issue,” Hurlbut said. “My task was to inform him of the state of stem cell research. This is not an easy issue for any of us individually or as a society. Senator McCain brought a certain humility, and I think he wants to honor all sides of the issue.”
“The next president is going to have to decide whether it’s worth offending a majority of Americans who don’t want to clone or destroy human embryos,” Hurlbut said.
Gazzaniga, author of “The Ethical Brain,” has another perspective.
“Science should be driving the enterprise, not politics,” Gazzaniga said.
The new president should issue “a clear statement of support for both present and future stem cell research programs,” said Gazzaniga, who believes the current federal investment is too limited to “really bring the science to fruition.”
Gazzaniga said, “New programs should be carefully developed to allow scientists — working within new, peer-established guidelines — to further research and explore laboratory methods to aid scientific discovery of the possible medical uses of stem cells.”
“The public will come to realize science is far more cautious than political whim,” Gazzaniga said.
Hurlbut, Gazzaniga and most experts on every side of the stem cell debate agree that the president’s advisory panel on ethics in medicine is probably here to stay, in one form or another.
“The idea of a council is sound,” Gazzaniga said.
“Scientific discoveries from a range of fields are booming along, and many of them impact how we humans will come to think about ourselves. Having a national forum for discussing the challenges to our current beliefs and practices is a good idea so long as the membership of such a council is balanced and reflective of our pluralistic society.
“I am sure any new president would want this help,” Gazzaniga said.
Hurlbut agrees and says we’ve only seen the tip of the ethical iceberg.
“We have barely begun to see the deep, profound questions that await us as a society,” Hurlbut said.
“I think the future of medicine and biotechnology will endlessly challenge our moral boundaries.”