Stem cell exodus?
Embryonic stem cell funding flows again – for now. But stop-and-go funding and continued legal wrangling could push researchers of cells from human embryos to pursue other fields.
When a judge froze all federal funding for research with human embryonic stem cells on Aug. 23, Jason Spence had no time to lose. Dependent on federal funding for his project to create replacement liver and other cells for patients, the stem-cell researcher had nine days before his project – and salary – expired.Skip to next paragraph
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Dr. Spence and the director of his lab at Cincinnati Children's Hospital began calling everyone they could think of, from hospital administrators to private agencies. After his funding officially lapsed on Sept. 1, the executive director of another institute at the hospital stepped in with temporary funds. Spence's project was safe, for the moment.
Then on Sept. 9, a federal appeals court temporarily stayed the injunction, allowing federal research money to flow once again to Spence and 21 other scientists whose funding had already stopped. On Sept. 28, they ruled that funding will continue, pending the outcome of an ongoing lawsuit. The appeals court has expedited the trial, so funding will be in jeopardy again, soon.
This month-long saga illustrates America's ongoing struggle with human embryonic stem-cell (hESC) research. Supporters say hESC research offers the potential to solve so-called "incurable diseases." Detractors point out that it involves the destruction of human embryos that, in other circumstances, could grow into people. With all the moral objections swirling around it, and the stop-and-go funding it has endured, is hESC research worth pursuing?
That's what many researchers are asking themselves – and their answer could have profound economic implications for the United States.
For all the national angst it generates, hESC research remains a surprisingly small part of stem-cell research. Over the past five years, it has received $530 million in federal funding, only about 3.5 percent of total stem-cell dollars.
Where does the rest of the money go? Half of all private funding and 9 of 10 federal dollars go to stem cells culled from adults, bone marrow, umbilical cords, or animals. So federal funding for hESC research could dry up tomorrow and the field of stem-cell research would continue.
Critics say that's what should happen. "Over 80 cures and treatments have been developed using adult stem cells or [umbilical] cord blood cells, and zero using embryonic cells," says Ron Stoddart, director of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, one of the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit. "Overwhelming advances have been made using adult stem cells. Why spend money to destroy embryos when it's not necessary?"
That's not the full story, supporters counter. "Of course adult stem-cell research is ahead," says Richard Hynes of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, who chaired the committee that wrote hESC research guidelines. "Bone marrow stem cells were discovered 50 years ago; hESCs were only discovered in 1998, and they're already [in] clinical trials."
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