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Guest Opinion: Stem-Cell 911

Stem-Cell 911

By Robert Lanza and Wendy Goldman Rohm

Worcester, MA, Oct. 22 -- In an unprecedented move, the Royal Society -- Britain's National Academy of Science -- this week asked the United Nations to ignore President George W. Bush's call for a ban on all forms of human cloning, including stem-cell research.

What hangs in the balance, on the cusp of the U.N. vote and the upcoming U.S. presidential election, is not only the plight of millions of patients, but also the future of one of the greatest medical advances in the 21st century.

It is alarming that the policy being pushed by the Bush administration is not in sync with either public opinion (a recent Harris poll indicates six out of seven people in the United States asked fully support all forms of stem-cell research), or the expert opinions of thousands of scientists and scores of Nobel laureates, both in the United States and worldwide.

The president has also ignored the recommendations of the most renowned scientific and medical groups in the country, including the American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Indeed, the president's ideological blinders seem to have put him in the same factual vacuum he found himself in at the start of the Iraq war: then and now, he refuses to look at the facts in an objective/scientific fashion.

Even the United States' new ambassador to the United Nations, John Danforth, called a news conference in support of therapeutic cloning and the urgent need for this research. Now, like National Institutes of Health chief Elias Zerhouni, Danforth has had to swallow the Bush policy; he must promote the Bush position to the United Nations that represents neither the scientific facts nor public opinion.

In the United States, Bush's habit of mixing personal religious beliefs with public policy has slowly and subtly eroded the line between church and state. This is inappropriate and damaging to human well-being and public health. If the Bush administration succeeds in extending this to the world via a U.N. ban, it will be a sad day indeed.

Bush's policies in the area of scientific research are as damaging to the public interest as his foreign policies have been to the state of international peace.

In the U.S. arena, a careful look at the record will show that a scientific and factual view of the world has rarely been incorporated into decision-making by this president. Earlier this year, 5,000 scientists (including 48 Nobel laureates) spoke out in support of embryonic stem-cell research and therapeutic cloning, and expressed outrage at the Bush administration's habit of distorting science.

When Laura and George W. Bush state that embryonic stem-cell research holds no near-term promise for helping patients with debilitating diseases, scientists on the front lines know they are flat-out wrong. With adequate funding, we can see the first therapies within five years.

The scientific results so far speak for themselves. In animals, embryonic stem cells already have reversed diabetes and fixed damaged hearts. Nerve cells have been used to treat Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and to restore function to paralyzed rats.

Stem-cell scientists worldwide have no interest in destroying lives. They obtain stem cells from tiny balls of cells left over in in-vitro fertilization clinics. Some 400,000 of these are either discarded or frozen in the United States. It is puzzling to us that the president believes the potential life of a group of cells -- smaller than a grain of sand -- is more valuable, say, than the life of a living, feeling, 5-year-old with a life-threatening disease.

Leading Republicans like Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, are similarly puzzled. They believe an embryo only has the potential for life when it is a fetus in woman's womb, not a ball of cells in a test tube. The question is whether a microscopic ball of cells warrants the same rights as a parent or a spouse suffering from Alzheimer's disease, or a young diabetic child who may go blind or have limbs amputated.

Even a generous private sector will be hard pressed to fill the government's role. Overcoming the scientific challenges that remain will require a large and sustained investment in this research. The government is the only realistic source for such an infusion of funds, and remains the greatest hope for moving embryonic stem-cell research into the clinic in the next five to 10 years.

Without this support, research progress will be substantially delayed, and many scientists and companies may be driven overseas, to the United Kingdom, Singapore, South Korea, Israel and many others where stem-cell research is more fully supported by government.

Bush's dangerously flawed policy in the United States should not be allowed on the world stage, where it will severely dampen efforts underway to relieve human suffering and disease with emerging stem-cell therapies. Moreover, it should be overturned in the United States; time is of the essence for millions of patients.


Dr. Robert Lanza is editor in chief of "Handbook of Stem Cells" and medical director at Advanced Cell Technology. Wendy Goldman Rohm is author of "The Eighth Day: On the Front Lines of Stem Cell Research and the Countdown to a Human Clone," to be published in April 2005 by Harmony Books (Random House). This opinion was first published By UPI. It is republished here at the request of the authors.

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