Wasting Tax Dollars on the Wrong Research

Despite his talk of economic hardship, President Obama has been on an ideological spending spree — expanding government, increasing taxes, and doubling the national debt. New money pits are dug daily. Consider Obama’s commitment to government controlled health care and the possible nationalization of banks. But little discussed has been the financial ramifications of taxpayer-funded human embryonic stem cell research.

The morality of such life-destroying science aside, it is a prime example of pork barrel spending as it funds the kind of stem cell research that has the least chance of leading to real therapies for real patients. While it’s “only” a billion dollars so far — chump change, perhaps, out of a $3 trillion budget — at a time of fiscal crisis, it’s an “investment” in failure

If the justification for such research is the hope of developing successful therapies, only adult stem cells have a demonstrated track record of success. Obama has been disingenuous in claiming that he is freeing up monies for such research for the first time. Stem cell research — publicly and privately funded — has been going on for more than a decade. But what is often lost in all of the reports about stem cell research is the critical difference — both in terms of real results and ethical controversy — between adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells.

Adult stem cells (ASCs) have a documented record of clinical success, without ethical controversy. There are numerous sources of ASCs in our own bodies: bone marrow, skin, muscle, and fat, and they are also plentiful in umbilical cord blood, placenta, and amniotic fluid. Some ASCs are highly flexible, all are ethically neutral, and they can be obtained (with informed consent) by a simple biopsy and without significant risk to the donor.

Thousands of patients have already benefited from treatment with ASCs. While still largely experimental, ASCs have improved health of patients with heart damage, multiple sclerosis, juvenile diabetes, liver damage, Parkinson’s, spinal cord injury, sickle cell anemia, various cancers, and dozens of other conditions, all documented by published scientific results.

By sharp contrast, human embryonic stem cells (ESCs) have yet even to be used in experiments with patients and involve the destruction of embryonic humans.

As the chart shows, the National Institutes of Health spent nearly $1 billion tax dollars on stem cell research in FY 2008. Adult stem cell research received more funding because it was better science and was actually helping patients — clinical trials are very expensive. If Obama were truly looking for “shovel ready” research projects able to produce real results, embryonic stem cell research would not make the list.

There are major, inherent biological obstacles to any potential use of ESCs for human therapies. These are serious, long-standing scientific problems, well-known and nowhere near being solved.

First, the very characteristics so highly prized by some scientists, their highly-flexible (pluripotent) nature and rapid growth, makes them difficult to control for actual clinical use. In fact, the test favored by scientists for a pluripotent cell is their ability to form tumors called teratomas. ESCs’ robust growth often leads to mutation and "precancerous" cells. Commenting in Nature Reports Stem Cells, Martin Pera, Director of the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine at USC, admitted, “Ultimately it may be difficult or impossible to rule out with certainty that a given culture is totally free of abnormal cells.”

Second, differentiation doesn’t fix the problem. There are numerous documented examples that non-growing, specialized ESCs still can revert to growing cells and make tumors. In short, ESCs are an unstable base from which to mount a clinical attack.

Finally, ESCs are foreign tissue (like any donated organ) and transplant rejection remains a challenge in the use of these cells. The option of “excess embryos” from fertility clinics — which the Obama White House touts on its website — will not fix the immune-rejection problem. Nor will another method favored by President Obama — human cloning. All cloned animals show abnormalities, and the extent of the abnormality is impossible to predict. And human cloning to produce ESCs will require egg donation from millions of women, seriously risking their health.

These practical difficulties make real therapies from embryonic stem cell research highly unlikely and the present treatments deadly. Obama’s spending spree for such research is even more unfathomable when you consider we now have a third option for stem cells available — this requiring no physical invasions of any kind.

In November 2007, Japanese and American researchers developed “induced pluripotent stem cells” (iPSCs). By adding a few genes to a normal skin cell, the skin cell is reprogrammed to behave just like an ESC. The process is easier and cheaper than using embryos, and does not use eggs, embryos, or cloning. One group made iPSCs from a hair plucked from the head of one of the researchers. The technique has advanced rapidly, now requiring neither viruses nor genetic traces left behind in the cell. The iPSCs can be made directly from any patient, allowing study of the disease in the lab, and in one year over 200 new human cell lines have been produced, including recently from a Parkinson’s patient.

The iPSC development was considered so promising that the Scottish scientist and cloner of Dolly the sheep, Ian Wilmut, told the London Daily Telegraph that he was quitting cloning research to devote his efforts to iPSC research.

Given the huge investment that California (to its own economic disaster) and other states have already made in embryonic research, and when it’s clear that doctors are getting good results from adult stem cells, human embryonic research simply cannot be a priority for federal taxpayer dollars at a time of unprecedented federal deficits. One billion dollars to date may not seem like a lot to our new president, but America cannot afford to throw good money after bad science. Lives depend on it.