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Embryonic Stem Cells: Fighting for the future of medicine

By Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman

The stem cell debate has heated up again. On August 23rd a U.S. District Court judge granted a temporary injunction on research using human embryonic stem cells (ESCs) funded by the U.S. government while the case goes to trial. At issue is the Dickey-Wicker amendment which prohibits the use of federal funds for research that involves creating or destroying human embryos.

Embryonic stem cells have generated great excitement because they have the potential to cure diseases such as Alzheimer’s or diabetes. The controversy arises because in order to create embryonic stem cells the embryo itself has to be destroyed. President Obama, like Presidents Bush and Clinton before him to varying degrees, crafted an executive order in March 2009 that allows for federal funding of research using ESCs once they have been created, thereby side-stepping the issue of how these stem cell lines were created.

Scientists and physicians have allowed this compromise to govern their work and in so doing have exposed themselves to the current legal uncertainty. Muddying the waters, some scientists believe that adult stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells (differentiated cells that have been converted back into stem cells) are just as good as embryonic stem cells.

But it didn’t have to be this way. A public poll by the Genetics and Public Policy Center of Johns Hopkins University done in 2005 found that 67% of respondents approved of using ESCs in research. Furthermore, there are no laws at the federal or state level preventing the destruction of embryos produced during in-vitro fertilization. Similarly, there are no laws that prevent the donation of embryos to medial science; the ban is only on federal funding for this research.

The medical community should advocate for this promising avenue of research and not accept compromises. ESCs have different characteristics than adult stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells. To suggest that one can be substituted for the other in the absence of convincing evidence is just bad science. Robust research into cures for diseases requires the use of all three types of stem cells.

What is needed is a new law that will allow federal funding of research that uses embryonic stem cells. The public has shown strong support for just such a law in the hopes that one day there will be cures for common diseases. Now is the time for physicians to do what they do best and lead the fight for the future of medicine.

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