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The world has always had its share of religous zealots who decry advances in human knowledge and progress.  Men once believed the earth was flat.  They believed the reason man could not fly was because God wanted it that way. 
 
A trip to the moon or splittng the atom was viewed as the devil's work. A large number of people refuse to eat food developed by genetic enginering or food that has been irradiated.  They seem to believe that things should be the way they allways were.  Progress and knowledge are viewed with suspicion.
 
Now man has discovered the promise of using stem cells to learn ways to cure debilitating and terminal diseases that have tormented society since the begining of time.  Once again we hear that God doesn't want us to tamper with such fundamental building blocks of life.  They would rather see humanity continue to suffer rather than to explore an area so close to the edge of life itself.
 
The following article seems to indicate this issue is surfacing as a major concern in the U.S. and indeed did become a significant issue in the 2004 Presidential election contest.

By Val Brickates Kennedy, CBS.MarketWatch.com
Last Update: 6:11 PM ET July 27, 2004  

BOSTON (CBS.MW) - The once arcane debate over whether the federal government should help fund stem cell research has finally been mainstreamed, thanks in part to the Democratic National Committee.

In what will possibly turn out to be one of the more ironic turns in presidential campaign history, Ronald Reagan, Jr., namesake son of one of the most revered Republican leaders in history, will address the Democratic National Convention on Prime Time TV Tuesday night.

The subject? The Bush administration's restrictive policies on embryonic stem cell research.

What brings the younger Reagan across the political aisle is not a rejection of his father's legacy, but rather a quest to help rally support to fund this promising, yet controversial, area of medical research. Both Ron Reagan and his mother, Nancy, have become increasingly vocal advocates of this pioneering research in hopes that some day it will provide cures for such devastating diseases as Alzheimer's, which recently claimed the life of President Reagan.

According to a poll released by the Kerry Campaign Tuesday afternoon, 69 percent of voters support stem cell research, with 51 percent being "strong" supporters. The poll went on to say 77 percent of Democrats are supportive, along with 67 percent of so-called independent voters and 60 percent of Republicans.

At issue is the Bush administration's ban of allowing government funds to be spent on projects involving certain kinds of embryonic stem cell research, during the course in which days-old embryos are destroyed, on the grounds that the work is morally disturbing.

Necessary safeguard or hampering progress?

Supporters of the administration's position maintain that it is guarding against the abuse and destruction of human life. Critics say that the administration is using ideology to thwart scientific research.

The Democratic party has vowed to overturn the Bush administration's policy. Indeed, supporting stem cell research has almost become a mantra at the Democratic National Convention, with speaker after speaker taking the podium to berate the administration for allegedly imposing its ideological viewpoint on scientists.

"What this had done is politicize this field of research and therefore has made scientists and academic institutions hesitant to get into this kind of research," says Michael Werner, chief of policy for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, an international trade association.

Stem cells are primitive human cells found in embryos under a few weeks old. Once implanted into a women's womb, the embryo matures and develops into a fetus, and the stem cells differentiate themselves into highly specialized organs and systems of the human body. A limited number of stem cells can also be found in adults, although many researchers say they are far more difficult to harvest and study.

To get at the stem cells, researchers must dissect the embryo, a process that results in the embryo's destruction. The stem cells can then be replicated repeatedly to millions of other like stem cells. Researchers call these millions of stem cells created from one embryo a stem cell "line."

Critical to the debate has been that the embryos in question are generally donated by patients of fertility clinics. Without being implanted into the womb, the donated embryo cannot develop into a full-term baby.

Stem cell supporters believe that by understanding how stem cells work, we can one day use our own stem cells to create "replacement" cells that can be used to repair bodily damage caused by accident, disease, genetics or even age. Such debilitating conditions as spinal cord injury, Parkinson's disease and diabetes are considered to be the best candidates to be treated by stem cell therapies in the near future, possibly within the next ten years.

Others also maintain that by studying the stem cells abnormal embryos, those known to carry genes that cause severe disorders, researchers may unlock the secrets to preventing or reversing birth defects.

Vital federal research funding at risk

At the crux of the issue is the 2001 decision by the Bush administration to allow federal grants to be used only in research involving about 70 or so stem cell lines already documented by the National Institutes of Health. Scientists working on other lines are not eligible for federal funding for their projects. The theory behind this is that by denying federal funds, scientists will shy away from destroying more embryos in an attempt to create new stem cell lines.

A major sticking point in the administration's argument, however, is that the NIH's approved stem cell lines are inadequate. Many researchers claim that the approved stem cell lines have been "contaminated" by foreign genetic material, such as cells from laboratory animals. Others claim that more stem cell lines that contain genetic material from a wider variety of diseases and birth defects are needed in order to understand how these conditions arise.

The ban does not restrict such research conducted using private funds, such as those given by foundations or individual benefactors.

According to the biomedical community, however, the Bush administration's stance is a radical departure from past U.S. policy for fostering scientific and medical innovation. Typically, the most pioneering scientific initiatives are conducted in the academic rather than commercial arena. Researchers therefore maintain that federal grants are essential for ensuring that programs are consistently funded and monitored. Otherwise, the projects run the risk of being overlooked or even abandoned.

"The NIH can jump start research," says Werner. "They can pump money into it, and the research is shared amongst the academic community."

"Most of the nation's leading scientists derive their funding from the NIH," says George Daly, one of the world's foremost stem cell researchers.

Daly, who now conducts most of his work under the auspices of Boston's Children's Hospital and Harvard University's recently established Stem Cell Institute, says that while some of his projects have qualified for NIH grants under the Bush guidelines, the vast majority are now supported by funding from foundations and individuals. Daly counts the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation amongst his key donors.

"You can go out there and pound the pavement, but then you have to hope that you can cobble together enough funding to sustain the research," says Daly. "It's a significant challenge to establish a consistent program if you're dependant on private funds."

Daly also believes that the Bush restrictions are deterring younger scientists from entering the field of embryonic stem cell research.

Experts like Daly also maintain that by pushing embryonic stem cell research into the realm of private funding, the government could be losing rather than gaining control over such potentially dangerous research as human cloning. Instead, says Daly, the government should allow such research to be pursued under the watchful eye of the NIH and a peer review panel of scientists and bioethicists.

Says Daly, "If you only allow privately funded scientists to go forward, there's no societal or governmental oversight."

Val Brickates Kennedy is a reporter for CBS MarketWatch based in Boston.