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Stem-ing the Debate

Eesha Pandit

With new techniques for controversy-free stem cells in reach, there are several critical issues to keep in mind as stem cell research becomes commonplace.

Embyonic stem cells, a rare and precious resource in the scientific community, are about to get a change in status. Researchers from Japan and Wisconsin have discovered a way to produce stem cells without the embryos. They were able to create the cells by re-programming mature adult stem cells. These mature, adult cells are called "pluripotent stem cells," and can potentially become every other kind of cell, debunking the idea that only embryonic stem cells are capable of this feat.

Currently, federal funds are allowed to be used for those stem cell lines created on or before August 9, 2001, per the Bush administration policy instituted on that date. The new finding is being heralded as the solution to the problem of limited access to stem cell lines. From Richard Hayes of the Center for Genetics and Society in the LA Times:

In general, Republicans have equated medical research using single-celled clonal embryos with murder, while Democrats have promoted state ballot initiatives enshrining human embryo cloning as a constitutional right and committing billions of taxpayer dollars to a procedure that could open the door to socially pernicious applications, threaten women's health and exacerbate healthcare inequities.

Now we have a chance to put the cloning debate behind us.

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Hayes goes on to argue that with the cloning debate on the back burner we can get to the matter of addressing the implications of genetic technologies. But before I get to that, a little primer on the new developments:

There are indeed several benefits to this new research finding. Specifically, according to Joshua Trojak, acting executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology, the new finding could "make it easier for scientists to collaborate across state lines." Currently, collaborative research among states is challenging given that each state that funds embryonic stem cell research has separate rules, regulation and restrictions. Further, states that have severely restricted or no access to these cell lines are likely to commit funding for research using the new technique.

This might have some negative implications for scientific research if the new technology eclipses current research on embryonic stem cells. According to the Post, Richard Murphy, interim director of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine , claimed that will be "two parallel tracks of research" involving embryonic stem cells and stem cells derived from adult cells via the new technology. In an effort to make these distinctions clear, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni said research using the new methods would be eligible for federal funds with the "only limit [being] the quality of the science" (Washington Post, 11/22). On the international front, German Research Minister Annette Schavan announced that the German government will double its funding for stem cell research from five million euros, or $7.4 million, to just under 10 million euros, or about $14.8 million.

Assuming that these issues can be reconciled and the procedures are effectively compatible, where do we go from here? There are several critical issues to keep in mind as stem cell research becomes commonplace:

  • § Biomedical research for health care advancements must be ethical and responsible to the needs of patients and marginalized communities. Medical decisions should be made by patients based on their personal values, beliefs and community needs.
  • § We cannot abandon social justice and equality of care as technologies become readily accessible. There are existing gender/sexuality race and economic disparities that affect health care — new technologies should aim to close these gaps and not exacerbate them.
  • § As genetic therapies increase, we must keep in mind the history of race and gender based eugenic concerns.
  • § We must also create and maintain strong relationships with activists in the disability rights community to ensure that their concerns are represented.

As technologies become less controversial and increasingly supported women's health and reproductive justice advocates must keep vigilant watch to ensure that they meet the needs of our bodies and communities.