Published May 25, 2006
We are entering a summer of stem-cell anniversaries. August 9 of this year will mark the fifth anniversary of President Bush’s embryonic-stem-cell funding policy, which seeks to support basic stem-cell science without encouraging the ongoing destruction of embryos.
Wednesday, meanwhile, marked the first anniversary of the vote in the House of Representatives to overturn President Bush’s policy and replace it with one that would encourage the destruction of human embryos for research. On May 24, 2005, the House voted 238-194 in favor of a bill sponsored by Representatives Mike Castle and Diana DeGette that would, as the president put it last year, “take us across a critical ethical line by creating new incentives for the ongoing destruction of emerging human life.”
Following that vote, Senate action on the bill appeared to be imminent, and it seemed likely that stem cells would be the subject of President Bush’s first veto. The momentum for a Senate vote seemed to grow stronger still when Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist announced last July that he would support the Castle-DeGette bill. Frist’s reversal, the Washington Post noted then, “is likely to win over some undecided lawmakers.”
Months have passed without a Senate vote, however, and Wednesday’s Washington Post told a very different story. “The political calculus around stem cells has changed in unexpected ways,” notes the Post. And much of that change, the Post adds, has been not political but scientific. The facts on the ground simply don’t support the opponents of President Bush’s policy.
Before last year’s vote, backers of the Castle-DeGette bill generally made four key arguments to persuade lawmakers: (1) that embryonic-stem-cell advances were coming fast and furious, (2) that the stem-cell lines funded by the Bush policy were contaminated and therefore not very useful, (3) that American leadership in the field depended on overturning that policy, and (4) that public support for funding the research was broad and deep.
You still hear these same arguments, but a year after the House vote, not one of them really holds up to rigorous scrutiny.
The greatest embryonic-stem-cell success that advocates could point to a year ago was actually a cloning success — and, as it turns out, was not a success at all. On May 19, 2005, a week before the House voted, Senator Diane Feinstein released a statement that said:
The achievements made by scientists in South Korea prove that it is possible to derive patient-specific embryonic stem cell lines using the Somatic Cell Nuclear Transplantation technique. This is a major achievement for the future of regenerative medicine. We are one big step closer to eventually developing treatments for deadly conditions like spinal cord injury and juvenile diabetes. There is no question that this country needs an effective stem cell policy — both to provide federal funding for additional embryonic stem cell lines and to provide federal ethical guidelines.
The “achievements” Feinstein spoke of were, it now turns out, a total fraud. A team of South Korean researchers led by Hwang Woo Suk claimed to have produced cloned human embryos and derived embryonic stem cells from them. In the last few months, it has been revealed that the researchers’ publications were faked, their experiments unsuccessful, and their treatment of egg donors grossly appalling.
In fact, human embryonic-stem-cell research is at a very early stage. There have been no therapeutic applications, or even human trials. Most researchers argue it will be many years before it can be clear whether such applications will be possible. If anything, it now appears they are further behind today than they (thought they) were a year ago. This is not to deny the potential — and potentially unique — value of research using embryonic stem cells. But the excessive hype has long been premature and irresponsible.
The kind of basic science being done in the labs for the moment is well served by stable, thoroughly characterized lines of stem cells like those funded by the Bush policy. In fact, since last year’s vote we have learned just how well the so-called “Bush stem-cell lines” have served the needs of researchers. Contrary to the assertions of those who oppose the Bush policy, it turns out the funded stem-cell lines are used in the vast majority of all human embryonic-stem-cell research; a study in the April issue of Nature Biotechnology showed that more than 85 percent of such research around the world has used these lines, and most of it in the past four years. The $90 million spent by the federal government on such research has surely helped the field, but it is also clear from these figures that many researchers who do not receive NIH funding are using the Bush stem-cell lines.
What, then, to make of assertions that these lines are contaminated by exposure to animal materials, and therefore useless? That notion, central to the case for the Castle-DeGette bill last year, has also since fallen apart. A series of articles, including one by stem-cell pioneer James A. Thomson in Nature Biotechnology (online here; subscription required) have shown successful methods of removing animal materials from the funded lines. Other studies have shown results similar to Thomson’s, and the contamination argument has gone the way of the others.
These technical arguments against the lines were key to the further assertion, frequently heard a year ago, that the Bush policy was causing America to fall behind other countries in stem-cell research. In her statement praising the Korean research last year, Senator Feinstein also argued that “federal inaction has created a void that has been only partially filled by states and by private entities, and it has allowed other countries to move ahead of the United States in this important area of cutting-edge medical research.”
Even setting aside the fact that some of the research Senator Feinstein was worried about was actually faked, her larger comment about “other countries” moving “ahead of the United States” was totally wrong. The same April Nature Biotechnology study (online here; subscription required) that showed how widely the NIH-funded lines are used also showed that American scientists are by far the world leaders in embryonic-stem-cell research — publishing 46 percent of all articles on the subject, with the remainder divided among 17 other countries. American publications in the field have been growing each year (from 3 in 2002 to 20 in 2004). Publications around the world have also been accelerating, of course, but no single country comes close to America’s dominant position.
The Castle-DeGette bill’s backers have just one card left: public opinion. Even if none of their arguments hold up, they claim that they have persuaded the public, and that this is reason enough to change the policy. But even this claim doesn’t hold up.
Castle-DeGette supporters, Wednesday’s Post notes, “point to new polling data indicating that a greater majority of Americans than ever, 72 percent, support the research — a finding that candidates, they say, cannot afford to ignore.”
But note how the poll they cite actually frames the issue:
Embryonic stem cells are special cells that can develop into every type of cell in the human body. The stem cells are extracted from embryonic cells produced in fertility clinics and then frozen days after fertilization. If a couple decides that the fertilized eggs are no longer needed, they can choose to donate the embryos for research or the clinic will throw the embryos away. Scientists have had success in initial research with embryonic stem cells and believe that they can be developed into cures for diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s, heart disease, juvenile diabetes, and spinal cord injuries.
Those being questioned are given a vastly exaggerated impression of the promise of the science. And they are never told the research involves the destruction of human embryos — in fact, the way the poll frames the issue almost suggests the research is an alternative to the destruction of embryos.
Moreover, they are not then asked what they think of the current federal policy, or whether it should be changed. They are not told that the government already funds this research, and funds it in ways that do not encourage the further destruction of embryos. Instead, they are asked: “Having heard this description, do you strongly favor, somewhat favor, somewhat oppose, or strongly oppose medical research that uses stem cells from human embryos?” Forty-two percent say they strongly favor it, while another 30 percent “somewhat favor” the research.
Given his funding policy, it may well be that President Bush himself would be among that 72 percent of supporters — after all, he was the first president to fund the research, even if within moral limits.
Very few polls actually ask the public for views on the existing funding policy, rather than general impressions about stem-cell research. And those that do find a rather different picture than the one portrayed by advocates of embryo-destroying research. The most recent of these polls was actually done just at the time the supporters of the Castle-DeGette bill were making their case most fervently and publicly, the very week the House voted a year ago. As the House was preparing to vote (with many congressmen operating on the assumption that a vast majority of the country supported overturning the Bush policy), this poll found that only 37 percent of those questioned actually wanted to fund more stem-cell lines. In other words, support for embryonic stem-cell research does not necessarily translate into support for a federal funding policy that promotes and pays for the ongoing destruction of human embryos.
A year after the House vote, very little remains of the arguments that seemed so persuasive then. On the contrary, developments in techniques to derive embryonic-like stem cells without requiring the destruction of embryos have given new ammunition to supporters of the current policy. The momentum has shifted firmly against the Castle-DeGette bill, even if most advocates continue to spout the same arguments, and many in the press continue to parrot them.
What this will mean politically remains an open question. But it is undeniable that much has happened in the field of stem-cell research this year that should make Senators look at the Castle-DeGette bill in a new light, and better appreciate the Bush policy’s successful effort to balance science and ethics.