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.