Harvard University has raised money from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, alumni, and other sources to create the Harvard Stem Cell Institute which does embryonic stem cell research. Douglas Melton, a Harvard professor who does impressive stem cell research (see here and here for example), has a lab in the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and recently spoke to the New York Times about the legal barriers between his lab and the bulk of biomedical researchers at Harvard and other research centers.
Q. How exactly has President Bush's ban on federal financing for most embryonic stem cell study affected your research?
A. 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.
In order to keep out researchers who receive federal funds Melton's lab requires a card and access code to enter. On the one hand, at least it is possible to set up labs that operate outside of the restrictions set on federal funding. The private realm still exists. On the other hand, the private realm has got to keep out the public realm using security cards. The default assumption is that government regulations and the government's domain apply at universities. The stem cell research debate aside, I find that troubling.
Melton argues that progress can not be made without a community of researchers. He points out that current regulations so isolate him from the vast bulk of researchers that the advantages that come from sharing ideas are greatly reduced. The 2004 passage of a California ballot initiative to fund stem cell research effectively is going to cause the creation of more isolated buildings on California university campuses where researchers work totally with non-federal funding. But these labs will at least be able to collaborate with each other. Effectively the federal regulations on human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research combined with state and private funding are leading to the creation of a smaller parallel system of research labs.
My expectation is that this is the new status quo on human embryonic stem cells (hESC) research in the United States. We'll have a group of isolated human embryonic stem cell labs working away on human pluripotent stem cells derived from hESC for years to come. Eventually the barrier between these researchers and the rest of biomedical research community will break down due to one of two reasons: A) research advances will lead to ways to make pluripotent stem cells without using an egg as a starting point or B) the value of hESC for producing therapies will become so clear to the public at large that a large majority will decide that their ethical reservations aren't all that deep and that it is in their own self interest to accept therapies made from embryonic stem cells.
I expect option A to happen years before option B. But I'm not certain on that point. Possibly the small number of human embryonic stem cell labs will fairly quickly develop an effective therapy using hESC that public attitudes will shift. Possibly the problem of how to turn more differentiated cells into much less differentiated and ultimately pluripotent cells will take a decade or longer to solve. But a larger number of labs will be funded to work on the problem of how to produce pluripotent stem cells without using embryos as compared to the number of labs that will work on hESC.
|Share |||Randall Parker, 2006 January 29 09:47 PM Bioethics Debate|