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Stem cells and the race for the White House

23 August 2004
Appeared in BioNews 272
Embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research is becoming a hot topic in the US presidential campaign. While president Bush claims that he supports the research, he has placed restrictions on the use of ES cells by federally-funded scientists. Despite increasing pressure on him to change the policy, he is sticking to his guns. Democratic candidate John Kerry, on the other hand, has publicly supported ES cell research and has pledged, if elected, to increase both the funding and the number of stem cell lines that would be available to state-funded US researchers.

Some US critics have decried Kerry's approach to the ES cell issue as 'political spin', saying that he 'glosses over' the moral issue over the destruction of human embryos in order that the research can be carried out. The reverse is true of Bush - he is criticised for letting his own moral dislike of the destruction of embryos override any interest in furthering medical research - ruling by 'moral ideology'. He is also criticised by scientists, who say that his approach hinders research in the US and will leave US science lingering behind other nations. Recent developments suggest they may be right.

Earlier this month, the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority granted the first licence allowing researchers to create cloned human embryos for ES cell research. The news prompted calls for a change in the law, in both Germany and the US, with scientists fearing that their stem cell research will now lag behind that taking place in the UK and elsewhere. In an International Herald Tribune article (see Recommends, below, for this and other articles on this topic), leading US stem cell researcher Susan Fisher estimates that her group has lost at least two years - 'a lifetime' of research time dealing with the fallout from the Bush regulations.

Other US scientists point out that Bush's policy, which restricts federally-funded researchers to working on embryo stem cell lines created before 9 August 2001, will not just harm US science. Writing in the Washington Post, John Gearhart and Ruth Faden say that patients everywhere stand to lose out from the lack of investment by the US. Research in other countries 'cannot fill the gap', they say. A recent poll found that the number of Americans who approve of embryo stem cell research has increased since 2001, from 61 to 73 per cent. US stem cell researchers must be hoping that they all feel strongly enough about this issue to turn up and vote on 2 November.

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