What Are Stem Cells And Why Are They An Election-Year Issue?

Cultivation of stem cells has potential to lead to medical breakthroughs.

Health care is often an important issue in a presidential campaign, but this year John Kerry has raised the stakes. Beyond promising to lower costs and improve accessibility, Kerry is also offering to "slow the loss of a grandmother's memory, calm the hand of an uncle with Parkinson's, save a child from a lifetime of daily insulin shots or permanently lift a best friend from his or her wheelchair."

The solution, according to Kerry, is more federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research — funding that is currently banned by the Bush administration.

Embryonic stem cells are a bit like human Silly Putty, in that they have the biological potential to be molded into any of the numerous types of tissues that make up the human body. Research and cultivation of these stem cells have the potential to lead to breakthroughs in organ transplantation, gene therapy and the treatment of diseases like Parkinson's and diabetes.

The dilemma is that human embryos must be destroyed to harvest the stem cells. Many religious conservatives consider these embryos to be human life and they fear that as stem-cell research becomes commonplace, scientists will be tempted to create microscopic human life merely to conduct experiments on it. Others worry that the research opens troubling ethical doors that will lead to future human cloning.

Supporters of the research claim there is nothing to fear, because thus far every embryo used as part of the research was already slated for destruction. Every year thousands of infertile couples go to fertility clinics where eggs are extracted from the female. An embryo is created by fertilizing a number of these eggs with sperm extracted from the male. The embryo is then implanted in the woman, hopefully resulting in pregnancy. The remaining "excess" embryos are generally destroyed at some future date. The embryos used in stem-cell research are taken from this supply.

The debate is not limited to the U.S. — a number of countries are currently mulling over where to draw the line in this area of medical science. Earlier this year, South Korea abandoned the use of embryos from fertility clinics and became the first to use cloning techniques to harvest embryos strictly for research. Just last week, the British Parliament issued a license for English researchers to do the same. But in July, the French Parliament rejected the use of cloning techniques for any purpose.

Three years ago, President Bush, in a nationally televised address, announced the first federal funding policy for research on stem cells. In an attempted compromise, Bush approved the use of federal funds for stem-cell research, but to ensure that no federal money would be used to destroy embryos, Bush limited support to research on already-existing stem-cell lines. As a result, scientists are prevented from using federal grants to study any new embryonic stem cells, which many say has severely restricted research in the area.

Democrats hope that the funding ban is a factor on Election Day, especially given polls which show that voters overwhelmingly favor the research (at least when coupled with potential medical breakthroughs). During the Democratic Convention in July, a number of speakers, including Ronald Reagan Jr., attacked the Bush administration's handling of the issue, and John Kerry devoted much of the Democrats' most recent weekly radio address to the subject, saying, "We're going to lift the ban on stem-cell research. We're going to listen to our scientists and stand up for science. We're going to say yes to knowledge, yes to discovery and yes to a new era of hope for all Americans."

Kerry has proposed quadrupling the federal funding for stem-cell research and establishing a system of "strict ethical regulations" whereby scientists would be able to use federal funds to isolate and study stem cells from excess fertility-clinic embryos — but only after the man and woman consent and the proposed experiments pass muster with an ethics committee.

In its defense, the Bush campaign has sent out first lady Laura Bush to argue for the administration's policy. In a speech to the Pennsylvania Medical Society on Monday, Mrs. Bush declared this "an issue with moral implications that must not be treated lightly," and then went on to chide Democrats for making hyperbolic promises about the potential of stem cells, particularly with regards to Alzheimer's. Mrs. Bush stated, "The implication that cures for Alzheimer's are around the corner is just not right, and it's really not fair to the people who are watching a loved one suffer with this disease." Many scientists concur with the first lady and privately admit that there is little evidence that stem-cell therapy holds the potential for curing Alzheimer's in the way that Kerry often claims.

Supporters of the Bush administration also note that, contrary to Kerry's frequent claims, there is no ban on stem-cell research, but merely a ban on using federal grants for the research. Private corporations and universities are still able to perform the research and have, in fact, been doing just that. More than 125 new colonies of human embryonic stem cells have been created since the Bush administration's ban on federal funding went into effect.

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