Stem Cell Drama
The recent New York Times interview with prominent Harvard stem cell researcher Douglas Melton touches on all of these issues. Melton, who focuses his research on potential treatments for diabetes, describes an environment stifled by unnecessary regulation. When asked about the effect of the Bush ban on federal funding for research involving new embryonic stem cell lines, Melton said:
It made it more difficult, to say the least. Long before Bush's speech, we had planned stem cell experiments. Afterward, we were able to go forward because the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Juvenile Diabetes Association and Harvard alumni provided private funding.
However, because of administration policy, we had to set up this whole new laboratory that was separate from everything else here at Harvard.
And we had to separate the money in a really scrupulous way. We have an accountant who makes sure that not a penny of federal funds goes to embryonic stem cell research. We have separate everything - light bulbs, computers, centrifuges.
This can be burdensome. Most of the activities at this university receive federal money in some indirect way. So you have to ask yourself, "How can you do the research without any imprint of federal funding?"
And we're not just talking about equipment and real estate; it's people. Let's suppose there's a graduate student who's receiving a federally funded fellowship, can he or she participate in thinking about this research or even look at the data? The answer is no.
Although I love being a scientist, I’ll admit that doing science can be pretty difficult as is, having to deal with the intellectual and practical challenges of the research itself, grants and funding, and the rules and regulations already in place. Additional restrictions on top of these can be damning, especially in a field characterized by an active and integral exchange of ideas and resources. Such difficulties could also make promising students look toward other more accessible areas of research:
The lack of federal support keeps many of America's brightest young scientists from working in this area….
…The bottom line here is that it's unlikely that one person or one lab will solve a problem as big as degenerative diseases, which is what stem cell researchers are trying to do.
It takes a community of people in an area to solve a big problem. If you were trying to solve cancer at two places, no one would think that was enough.
This policy needs to change, but the current administration turns a deaf ear toward the American public, the majority of which support funding for embryonic stem cell research. This stubbornness will weaken the United States, a nation that has become complacent in its leading position in worldwide science and has already begun to lose its edge. More importantly, though, the science will suffer and the medical potential of embryonic stem cell research will be not be realized fully, or at least not nearly as quickly as it could have been.