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LIFE SCIENCES

One Week Reprieve for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research

The drama surrounding human embryonic stem cell research continues. After federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research was abruptly halted by a judge’s order on August 23, a second court ruling temporarily reversed the ban so that the parties could prepare arguments. But on September 20 the paperwork will be in and the court will consider whether to allow the injunction or to overturn it.

As the countdown to the next decision proceeds, stem cell scientists all over the United States are holding their breath, trying to anticipate whether their research can continue. So are Americans with incurable diseases, who rejoiced when the controversy over human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research seemed to have been resolved.

What can we do during this week-long reprieve? Some talented American scientist may finally decide to take a job in China, where funding for stem cell research is expanding in response to the contraction of funding in the United States. Or a scientist may quit his scientific career and decide to go to law school, or become a banker. No matter what choices are made, Americans with incurable diseases will be the losers.

I want to spend the time explaining. I want to explain to Judge Lamberth that he shouldn’t have believed Dr. James Sherley’s claim that he was being financially harmed by the government funding hESC research. The judge should understand that obtaining funding from the NIH has always been a fiercely competitive process—with only the best research funded, no matter whether it concerns hESC or “adult” stem cells. I want to explain that so-called “adult” stem cell research also encompasses research using cells from aborted fetuses. Human embryonic stem cell research has no link to abortion; adult stem cell research does.

I’d like to invite Judge Lamberth to visit my laboratory; he could come any time of day or night—our scientists work long hours and weekends, not to make more money but because they want to have an impact on treating human disease. We are using hESCs to develop treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and arthritis, to understand what causes autism, Fragile X syndrome, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gerhig’s disease), and to improve the safety of pharmaceutical drugs.

Judge Lambreth, I invite you to my lab, to meet in person the dedicated scientists who know that hESCs and “adult” stem cells serve different, complementary purposes. We need both to treat human disease.

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