Commentary

Does the Senate Vote on Stem Cell Research Matter?

The U.S. Senate approved on a 63-37 vote Tuesday a bill that Majority Leader Bill Frist fought to pass and President Bush vows to veto today that would provide federal funding for research on new lines of stem cells. The debate was divisive, emotional, replete with misinformation from both sides — and totally unnecessary.

Despite the impression left by some of its supporters, stem-cell research is not banned. In fact, not only is it legal, it is thriving in the private sector. There are at least 11 private stem-cell research centers at universities and medical centers across the country. In May, Ray Dolby, creator of Dolby Stereo systems, donated $16 million to the University of California at San Francisco to establish a new stem-cell research center. And, just last month, Harvard University announced a privately funded, multimillion-dollar program to create cloned human embryos as sources of medically promising stem cells. Harvard is already home to the nation’s largest private research effort, employing more than 100 researchers and housing 17 new stem-cell lines. Harvard now processes as many research requests for its stem-cell lines as does the National Institutes of Health.

The pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries are contributing to the research as well. More than 60 U.S. and international companies are pursuing some form of research or therapeutic product development involving stem cells. These include corporate giants such as Johnson & Johnson, General Electric and Novartis. One company alone, Geron Corp., has spent more than twice as much as the federal government on stem-cell research. New companies are entering the field as well. At a meeting this year in San Francisco, it was estimated that as many as 50 U.S. venture-capital firms are prepared to invest in stem-cell research companies. This comes on the heels of $102 million in venture-capital funding for the stem-cell industry in 2005. All this corporate research should not be surprising, given that some estimates suggest that there will be a $10 billion market for stem-cell technologies by 2010.

So this is not a debate about whether embryonic stem-cell research should continue — it will. Rather, like so many other issues in Washington, it is a fight about who gets how much of the taxpayers’ money. Stem-cell researchers have become just one more special interest at the federal trough. And, as such, the coming debate is a perfect example of how science becomes politicized when government money is involved.

Instead of a serious scientific debate about the merits and drawbacks of a promising new therapy, one side will treat us to extravagant claims from celebrity spokespeople implying that miracle cures for everything from spinal injuries to Alzheimer’s disease are just around the corner. The other side will downplay studies that show promise from embryonic stem-cell research, while overselling results from adult stem cells. In reality, most scientists believe that embryonic stem cells may eventually help people with Parkinson’s disease, muscular dystrophy and spinal injuries, among other conditions. But widespread application of this research is years, likely decades, away.

If the government were to simply get out of the stem-cell research business and let the private sector continue its good work, medical science would do just fine. Those calling for increased funding could follow Dolby’s example, i.e., take out their checkbooks and support it. Those who oppose embryonic stem-cell research would not be forced to pay for it with their tax dollars. We could have an honest debate about what works and what doesn’t without all the political histrionics. The only ones who would suffer are the politicians, who would have to give up their efforts to manipulate medical progress to stoke their bases.

The vast majority of medical and scientific breakthroughs in this country’s history have been accomplished by the private sector.There’s no reason for stem-cell research to be any different. Let’s end the political debate, and get back to scientific research.

Michael Tanner is director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute and coauthor of Healthy Competition: What’s Holding Back Health Care and How to Free It (2005).