Sunday, August 08, 2004

Stem cells.

In an apparent attempt to close the "stem cell gap" between Democrats and Republicans, skillfully highlighted by Ron Reagan at the DNC Convention in Boston, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson released a statement on the subject today. It's not on the HHS Press Office's web page yet, so here it is in full, with my commentary:

Date: August 8, 2004
For Release: Immediately
Contact: HHS Press
(202) 690-6343


Quotable political soundbite/opening paragraph: Three years ago, President Bush opened the nation's laboratory doors for the first time to federal taxpayer funding for human embryonic stem cell research. The President remains committed to this groundbreaking policy that is advancing medical research into some of our most debilitating diseases. As we look forward to further progress on stem cell research, both embryonic and adult, it is important to keep in mind several important points.

President Bush provided - for the first time - federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. [Technically true, but only because Clinton's funding policy came late in his second term and Bush suspended it soon after taking office. Bush's own policy, announced in August 2001, was considerably more restrictive than Clinton's would have been.] The President's unprecedented decision [if you don't count Clinton's] allows for federal funding of research using existing stem cell lines that were derived before Aug. 9, 2001, with no limits on private funding of research. [Limits on private funding would probably have required a change in federal law, and Bush probably understood that he couldn't get such a law passed in 2001, any more than he could get it today.] The President believes that federal funds should not be used to encourage or support further destruction of human embryos, a principle that has been part of federal law since 1996. [And it's a policy that make almost no sense in the context of stem cells. With IVF clinics storing 10's of thousands, if not 100's of thousands, of frozen embryos that have already been designated for donation to research, or which could be legally donated by the clinics, or that have not been designated for any use and will eventually (despite staying frozen) break down and be useless for any purpose, does it make any sense at all to deny federal funds for research on stem cells derived from these embryos?] The impact of the President's decision was to open the flow of federal research dollars for embryonic stem cells and help accelerate work in this field.

The policy is working. [Sort of, and not nearly as well as it could be.] Under President Bush, federal funding for embryonic stem cell research has grown from zero under previous administrations to $24.8 million in fiscal year 2003 [a drop in the bucket], with no limits on future federal funding of research on eligible lines. [The limits are inherent in the eligible lines themselves, which this statement conveniently fails to acknowledge constitute a fraction of the number of cell lines the president based his policy on.] This investment has supported more than 500 shipments of stem cell lines to researchers around the world who are in the early stages of finding ways stem cells can be used to treat diseases such as neurological disorders, diabetes and heart disease. Additionally, in fiscal year 2003, the National Institutes of Health provided $190.7 million in adult stem cell research, which continues to show exciting promise.

The administration is working to maximize research opportunities within the federal guidelines. The NIH is taking new steps to create a National Embryonic Stem Cell Bank that will provide a ready source of human embryonic stem cells to scientists, ensure consistent quality of the lines and provide other technical support that will make it easier for scientists to use these lines. The NIH is also creating three new Centers of Excellence for Translational Stem Cell Research with the goal of exploiting new discoveries in basic embryonic and stem cell biology.

Let's take advantage of the great opportunity that exists before arguing that more is needed. The President's policy holds tremendous and yet-untapped potential, and there is much work to do. Before anyone can successfully argue that the existing federal stem cell policy needs to be broadened, we must first exhaust the potential of the stem cell lines made available within the policy, as well as the ability of the private sector to go beyond the policy. [Why? We already know the current policy isn't going to get enough stem cell lines into the hands of enough researchers for us to unlock the potential of stem cells anytime soon. Why not unleash that potential now, with a significant increase in the number of cell lines and an increase in the amount of federal funds devoted to this research project?] Keep in mind: More lines are available in the United States than any other country in the world. And while federal funding has paid for more than 500 shipments to researchers to date, more than 3,500 shipments are still available. Unlike many countries, there are no limits in the United States on private stem cell research. One study estimates that 1,000 scientists at more than 30 firms spent $208 million experimenting on embryonic and adult stem cells in 2002 alone.

Quotable political soundbite/closing paragraph: The future is promising. Years of hard work remains to be done before the basic research of today can become viable treatments and cures tomorrow. There is good reason to be optimistic. And this optimism is made possible by the reasoned policy of President Bush. Fair and reasonable people can disagree on this complex and difficult issue. President Bush made a tough decision that invested in the scientific promise of embryonic stem cell research without compromising an important ethical line. Three years later, it is clear that this balanced approach is working. The future is promising with the new research opportunities provided by President Bush's historic decision.

posted by tommayo, 2:09 PM

Health care law (including public health law, medical ethics, and life sciences), with digressions into constitutional law, poetry, and other things that matter