Obama, science, politics and ethics.
The world watched today as President Barack Obama, many noted, “lifted the ban on stem cell research” in the USA. While most news stories noted that scientists were applauding and thrilled, let’s be honest, many of the public were torn somewhere between joining in the applause and scratching their heads. They’re pretty sure that it means more research can be done using stem cells, but many simply have no idea what’s been restricted and what kinds of restrictions have been lifted. Even the highly enthusiastic journalists are reporting “huge exciting changes in policy” and “new frontiers in science possible”! Except a few. Like one journalist who offered a perspective on today’s story, clearly outlining what kinds of changes will result from Obama’s actions and just what this all means, with a bit of history on stem cell research funding thrown in for context.
Here is the story from The New York Times: Rethink stem cells? Science already has.
Restrictions on embryonic stem cell research originated with Congress, which, each year since in 1996, has forbidden the use of federal financing for any experiment in which a human embryo is destroyed. This includes the derivation of human stem cell lines from surplus fertility clinic embryos, first achieved by Dr. James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin in 1998. President Clinton contemplated but never implemented a policy that would have allowed N.I.H.-financed researchers to study human embryonic stem cells derived by others. Research was able to begin only in August 2001, when President Bush, seeking a different way around the Congressional restriction, said researchers could use any lines established before that date….Mr. Obama has put the proposed Clinton policy into effect, but Congressional restrictions remain. Researchers are still forbidden to use federal financing to derive new human embryonic stem cell lines. They will, however, be allowed to do research on new stem cell lines grown in a privately financed lab.
This story has been looming all weekend and many have been anxiously discussing, rejoicing or blogging about it. But most people that I talk to in the street or the hallway, don’t really understand it. And I think that’s a very important point.
Okay, here’s a very small amount of (very) basic science and then some history. Stem cell research can be done on two kinds of cells: Adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells. Adult stem cells come from adults and no one needs to be hurt or injured. There have never been restrictions in the USA on the use of adult stem cells. These cells are, however, limited in their usefulness. Embryonic stem cells, on the other hand, come from fertilized embryos that, by removal of the stem cells, destroys the embryo. These cells have a wider range of possibilities for research than adult stem cells. In the US, there have always been some restrictions on the use of embryonic stem cells, dating back to 1996 when the Dickey-Wicker amendment was passed by Congress, which prohibited the use of federal funding to create or destroy embryos in order to generate or collect stem cells for research. This amendment has been reiterated by Congress, year after year and the prohibition stayed in place. President Bush, in 2001, allowed a small number of already existing stem cell lines to be used in research with federal funding, but these cell lines were ones already in existence before that time. So only those cell lines approved by Bush were allowed to be tested using federal research funds.
But that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t any testing ongoing on other embryonic stem cell lines. What it meant was that if you were a scientist who wanted to use unapproved stem cells, you had to find your own funding and labs as well as ensure that no federal funding was used in conducting the reseach. Expensive, time consuming and laborious, even for the most dedicated researchers.
Now those same researchers who want to use these kinds of embryonic stem cell lines can apply for federal funding through agencies like the National Institutes of Health.
Okay, but Obama didn’t do one thing. He didn’t alter the Dickey-Wicker amendment, leaving it instead up to Congress, which has, year after year, upheld this without much discussion or argument. So, federal funding still cannot be used to create or destroy embryos for research purposes. Again, they can still be made and are being made, but only in private labs using private funding.
So essentially, Obama has really only moved the playing pieces around the board a little bit. Yes, he’s allowed the pieces a bit more freedom to move, but there are still clear restrictions on where the funds for research can come from and how they can be used. Simply put, this is less about what kinds of research gets done and more about who pays for it. Researchers are now able to use federal funds — like NIH funds — to use stem cells derived by others in private labs using private funding but because of the Dickey-Wicker amendment, they still can’t really “grow their own”. I think it’s important to note that, really, Obama isn’t allowing more kinds of stem cell research to be done, he is facilitating it by allowing access to federal funding. It’s being done already and has been throughout the Bush presidency, just not with tax payers’ money.
There is a great deal of hype around the so called “reversal” of Bush’s decision today. I think that it’s important that journalists and scientists be very clear about the details of what is going on for the public, on this issue and many others. Research ethics boards struggle with this every day: How to help researchers communicate often complex or highly scientific research to the public who have a right to be informed. It’s important that the public understand science and the impact that scientific research has on the world around us, especially with a highly sensitive issue, like this one, that triggers strong emotional reactions and moral convictions. When science mixes with politics, well, it can become even more obscure.