August 12, 2004--There is a ban on stem cell research-or at least that's what we hear. But that's only a half truth. Contrary to media reports and political speeches, like Ron Reagan's, the real facts are, first, the ban covers only federal funding of research, and second, it bans federal funding only for embryonic stem cell research. States and private sources are free to fund whatever stem cell research they choose.
Stem cells are "master cells of the body." One researcher compares them to "a packet of magic seeds that, depending on where they were planted, could grow into carrots, broccoli, corn, or cabbage." Implant them into the various organs of the body and, at least theoretically, stem cells can develop into any one of the 210 different types of bodily tissue. They will probably change medicine at least as much as antibiotics did sixty years ago.
My friend Dr. David Stevens, Executive Director of the Christian Medical and Dental Association, identifies at least five sources. First are embryonic stem cells, harvested from a developing human seven to ten days after fertilization. Second are fetal stem cells, often taken from tissues that would have developed into the ovaries or testes of aborted fetuses. Both of these sources involve harvesting stem cells by destroying a human life before birth, the kind of research that will not-and should not-receive federal funding.
But we don't have to kill one person to cure another. The three remaining sources of stem cells present no ethical problems whatsoever. The first source is adults. Dr. Stevens observes, "Tissues, like bone marrow, lung, pancreas, brain, breast, fat, skin, and even tooth pulp . . . contain stem cells that have been isolated." Two other legitimate sources are newborns and their mothers: Stem cells are in umbilical cord blood and in the placenta, or "afterbirth," that is discarded after delivery.
And we don't have to sacrifice medical effectiveness to satisfy pro-life scruples. In a July 11 op-ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, my colleague Dr. Nigel Cameron observes that "private investors have already decided [embryonic stem cell research] is worthless." Animal experiments with embryonic stem cells "have been remarkably unsuccessful, because the embryo stem cells have a nasty habit of causing tumors." By contrast, adult stem cells have "already led to cures for what had been incurable diseases."
Cameron and his colleague Jennifer Lahl decry a California ballot initiative, Proposition 71, which would borrow three billion dollars to fund research on embryonic stem cells. He notes advocates are trying to get public funds because private investors understand the futility. "California's business community has already made up its mind. If it believed the hype of those behind the proposition, it would be pouring funds into the field in the expectation of reaping vast profits. Instead, it has already voted with its feet."
So when you hear all the talk about the virtues of embryonic stem cells and how the government has banned research, remember that stem cells from non-embryonic sources are already curing patients. And embryonic stem cells aren't working. You won't hear it in the media, but we don't have to kill one human to cure another.