Thanks to Dan and Frank for inviting to blog about my new book, Stem Cell Century: Law and Politics for a Breakthrough Technology. The book analyzes a broad range of issues related to stem cell research and regenerative medicine. Only one chapter out of 10 (“The Embryo Wars”) considers the debate over the ethics of conducting research that requires the destruction of human embryos and the Bush policy of severely limiting federal funding of research on stem cell lines derived from embryos. But the announcement, two weeks ago, that two teams of scientists have succeeded in reprogramming adult cells to behave like embryonic stem cells has the potential to open a new chapter of the embryo wars that will play out in the presidential campaign.
Two weeks ago, it seemed pretty clear that embryonic stem cell research was a wedge issue that the Democrats would exploit in the 2008 election. All of the Democratic candidates not only favor federal funding of research on stem cell lines derived from embryos, they are quick to point out their position and criticize Presiden’t Bush’s funding restrictions. Most Americans, including most Democrats, most independents, and perhaps half of Republicans, support the research. The Republican candidates, on the other hand, tend to downplay the issue, whether they appear to support the research (McCain, Giuliani) or oppose it (Thompson, Romney–although the latter has changed his position, as he has on many issues, since he was the governor of Massachusetts), because the issue tends to split religious conservatives and economic conservatives.
The cell reprogramming success has not weakened the commitment to embryonic stem cell research of most members of the scientific community, because it is too early to tell whether the new cells – called induced pluripotent stem cells – will actually be as useful as embryonic stem cells, and because the new cells are made by inserting genes (which can cause cancer) with retroviruses (which can cause cancer). Not only does this mean that the IPS cells could not be used to create treatments that would be injected into humans (a long-term goal of stem cell research), it also suggests that they might not serve as good models of diseases for the more immediate goals of stem cell research: studying how degenerative conditions develop and creating large quantities of diseased cells in order to more efficiently screen chemical compounds that might be effective as treatments. Some prominent scientists believe the drawbacks of IPS cells at the current time are likely to be overcome; others think they are not.
The average American swing voter might not see things quite this way, however. Many people who favor embryonic stem cell research find the destruction of early-stage embryos troubling but justified by the potential medical benefits. Voters in this group might think that the creation of IPS cells has changed the cost-benefit analysis. A number of conservative commentators have already argued aggressively that the IPS discovery vindicates the Bush funding policy and shows that neither medical research nor ethics need to be compromised, and the Romney campaign issued a press release saying essentially the same thing. Meanwhile, all the pro-research candidates – Democrats and Republicans – have been noticeably silent the issue since the IPS announcement. I haven’t seen a statement or comment by any of them (if any readers have, please let me know). My guess is they are waiting to see polls that show whether the majority of Americans still favor embryo research. For the first time since 2001, the pro-research side is now on the defensive.