President Obama’s recent lifting of the Bush administration’s ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research has brought this issue back into the forefront. As a political independent and one of many Americans sickened by the constant bickering, posturing, and game-playing by our so-called leaders on both sides, I’m not one to whine about the “liberal media bias.” As a physician, however, I am prone to tirades about the misrepresentation of medical information by the current array of talking heads. These distortions travel into my office daily in the proclamations of patients making health decisions based on 30-second CNN snippets. So of course I was appalled at the lack of discussion around the advances that have been made in stem cell research since Bush’s ban was instituted. I do not perform stem cell research, nor am I in a position to treat patients with this ground-breaking technology when it reaches mainstream. I also write this without any political agenda. I am a family doctor who cares about people getting accurate information about health and medical technology so they can make informed decisions.
First, a quick update on the basics of stem cells. These cells have generated a tremendous amount or research interest because they are capable of developing into any type of cell in the human body. They are unique in their ability to become anything from a heart muscle to brain tissue to ovaries. If these cells could be developed and transplanted into people with diseased organs, the implications are enormous. Scientists can envision cures for diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, spinal cord injury, and many others. Embryos had been considered the best source of these cells, and because the ban only stopped public funding, research in the private sector continued even after the federal ban was enacted. The controversy is obvious. Supporters of the ban believe that embryos (even lab-created) are human life that should be protected and not used for research. They don’t want their money going to research that they find immoral. Opponents feel that these cells are just cells, and we have a moral obligation to all the people suffering from diseases that could be cured by this emerging technology. They feel this potentially life-changing study should be fully funded.
In late 2007, two groups of researchers, one from Japan and one from the University of Wisconsin, made an incredible breakthrough that I assumed would end this debate, or at least tone it down. Both groups found a way to alter human skin cells so that they behave like stem cells. They called them induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. These cells can do everything an embryonic stem cell can do! This means cells taken from human skin could be converted to stem cells in a laboratory. This was major. This innovation obviates the need for an ethics debate and also offers the advantage of providing a DNA match to the potential recipient of the cells (a problem with embryonic stem cells). Much more research is needed to fine tune this process, but at the time of his discovery, the leader of the University of Wisconsin group predicted that this technology would cause the use of embryonic stem cells to dramatically diminish. He also acknowledged embryonic stem cell research laid the groundwork for his revolutionary efforts.
Fast forward to March 2009. Headlines splash across the TV and internet that Obama has lifted the ban and we can once again dive into the work of saving lives! There is little mention that embryonic cell research had never ceased in the private sector, and the real issue was taxpayer funding of this research by a portion of taxpayers that find it offensive. More importantly, journalists have largely ignored possibly the greatest medical breakthrough of this decade, which is certainly relevant to any discussion on the topic. IPS cell research is unlikely to be offensive to anyone, and this is an ethics debate that we don’t need to have. Unfortunately, most of you don’t know that because too much of the media would prefer to stir controversy than give you the facts.
Shari S. Phillips, M.D.
Your Lake Norman Physician