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Delays in US stem cell debate

23 September 2002
By Dr Jess Buxton
Progress Educational Trust
Appeared in BioNews 176
Whatever happened to the US debate on embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning? Senators were due to consider two rival bills on cloning for medical research purposes back in June, but both were eventually withdrawn following procedural disputes. The confusion was seen as a blow to President Bush, who had called for a total ban on all forms of cloning. Since then, embryo cloning research aimed at developing new disease treatments has continued unregulated in the private sector, while government-funded scientists are still banned from carrying out similar work. It is still not yet clear when the Senate will vote on this crucial issue.

This situation must be agonising for many patients who might benefit from therapeutic cloning research, including those affected by spinal cord injuries. Christopher Reeve, the actor paralysed from the neck down following a horse riding accident seven years ago, voiced his own frustration in the UK media last week. He argues that with full support and funding from the US government, patient trials using embryo stem cells might now be in progress. This is perhaps unrealistic, given that stem cell therapy research is still in its infancy. But Reeve and others are justifiably angry with their government for casting further uncertainty over the future of research that could take many years to produce results.

An advisory panel appointed by President Bush recently recommended a four-year moratorium on cloning for research purposes, which could be viewed as a compromise. But Reeve and millions of other patients and their families would probably see it as a disaster. It is clear that embryo stem cell therapies show great promise, and the potential benefits to those affected by debilitating and life-threatening illnesses are already apparent. Delaying the debate for years will not change the arguments for allowing therapeutic cloning research to go ahead, but it could result in many more angry patients.

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