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The Politics of Stem Cell Research

The NIH recently published its annual report on funding levels for various research, condition, and disease categories. Since the NIH is a government institution, it should come as no surprise that the biggest changes came in areas that have been the subject of fierce political debate, the most volatile area of which being stem cell research.

by Richard Daub
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Latest NIH Report Provides a Snapshot of Where Stem Cell Research Support Dollars are Going

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently published its annual report on support levels for the funding of various research, condition, and disease categories. The report, which included 218 research and disease areas, had data ranging from the actual 2006 totals to the estimated totals for 2011. Since the NIH is a government institution, it should come as no surprise that the biggest changes came in areas that have been the subject of fierce political debate, and perhaps the most volatile area of all research funding has been that of stem cell research.

In the report, the stem cell areas were broken into numerous categories that changed during the reporting period from broader to more specific categories, and some simply categorized at all beyond “Stem Cell Research”. Therefore, for the purposes of this article, we combined the following statistics into four basic categories:

Human Embryonic, which in 2006 received $38 million in funding, is expected to receive $126 million in 2011 (an increase of 232%)

Non-Human Embryonic, which in 2006 received $110 million, is expected to receive $155 million in 2011 (an increase of 86%)

Adult Stem Cells, which includes umbilical cord blood/placenta and other non-embryonic, which in 2006 received $534 million, is expected to receive $717 million in 2011 (an increase of 96%)

Stem Cell Research, an all-inclusive category (where everything else NIH was not able to categorize more specifically was thrown), which in 2006 received $643 million, is expected to receive $1.1 billion in 2011 (an increase of 71%)

To put it simply, there has been a dramatic rise in government funding for stem cell research of all kinds since 2006.

At the beginning of his presidency in 2001, George W. Bush established embryonic stem cell research as a partisan political issue when he signed an executive order that froze funding for embryonic stem cell research and limited researchers to using existing stem cell lines. The Republicans fell into line with Mr. Bush while the Democrats voiced strong support for stem cell research, and the battle was waged along party lines in the years that followed.

Perhaps it was this restriction on embryonic stem cell research that led American scientists to start focusing more on adult stem cells. Non-embryonic stem cells (also referred to as “adult stem cells”), such as those derived from the blood in umbilical cords, began to show more promise for the treatment of a wide range of diseases. This was an encouraging sign for some, including Republican senator and presidential candidate John McCain, who eventually reversed his initial opposition.

Celebrities such as Michael J. Fox and Christopher Reeve also became the faces of the issue and helped sway public opinion to the pro side.

Yet, despite the growing optimism for the potential of non-embryonic stem cell research and the gradual shift in public opinion, the term “stem cell” still has a negative connotation for some because of its association with the word “embryonic.” Therefore, it remains a controversial sociopolitical issue, which may be due to simple misunderstanding.

“I think people most often mistakenly think that all stem cells are equal,” says Dr. Jack Mosher, a research assistant and lab manager at the Life Sciences Institute at the University of Michigan. “When they hear the generic term ‘stem cell,’ they assume that it can make any particular cell type. But there’s a big distinction between adult and embryonic stem cells that sometimes gets overlooked, either because the people talking about stem cells are purposely being misleading or are not being clear.”

With the election of Barack Obama, an avid supporter of embryonic stem cell research, a new era in American stem cell research has begun. One of President Obama’s first acts in office in early 2009 was an executive order to melt the freezes that George W. Bush implemented eight years earlier. However, because of the work that was being done with adult stem cells during the Bush administration—work that perhaps may not have been done if scientists had open access to embryonic stem cells—funding for adult stem cell research is also expected to increase dramatically in 2011. Some of the new grants awarded for adult stem cell research include projects such as “Cell Therapy for Improving Cardiac Function,” “Cancer Stem Cells in Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia and Ovarian Carcinoma,” and “SiRNA Gene Therapy for HIV/AIDS.”

The Burnham Institute for Medical Research in La Jolla, California, was a beneficiary of one of the new grants for a project that explores the homing of stem cells in stroke therapeutics. This grant was awarded under the umbilical cord blood/ placenta category, not the embryonic (human) category, and lab manager Andrew Crain says this research probably would not have been possible without this new grant because of the large expense.

“We started to hire more people, form more collaborations, and increase the magnitude of the projects,” Andrew says of the grant. “We’re able to do bigger and better things.”

Although embryonic stem cells are generally considered to be more flexible than adult stem cells and to hold more potential for eventually leading to cures for diseases, continued research on adult stem cells may be pivotal to the future of all stem cell research. Another political swing to the right could once again put embryonic stem cell research on hold, and if adult stem cell research has been put on the back burner during this period of embryonic allowance, it can effectively delay work that could lead to a major breakthrough. Additionally, the most important aspect of adult stem cell research may be that if it ever catches up to or surpasses embryonic as the primary form of stem cell research, it could effectively end the controversy once and for all.

“Stem cell research is probably one of the most important types of research because you not only have that ability to model diseases, but also to exploit the properties of the stem cells to your advantage,” Andrew Crain says.

“Stem cell research has a real chance of being able to treat diseases that currently have either limited or no treatments,” Dr. Mosher says. “It allows us to look for treatments or cures for these diseases in ways that we really haven’t had the ability to do before.”