april 09Main Street Journal
April 2009
pp. 8-9

A California-based biotech company called Geron has received FDA clearance to begin the first clinical trial of therapy using human embryonic stem cells (HESCs).

The HESCs being used by the company were derived from leftover fertility clinic embryos (which were destroyed in the process) and will be tested on 8-10 patients suffering from severe spinal cord injuries at seven medical centers around the country.

Geron’s work is privately funded, and the success or failure of these treatments cannot be attributed to President Barack Obama’s recent executive order committing federal funding to HESC research.

Though President Obama falsely described the former administration’s policy as a “ban,” President George W. Bush’s August 2001 executive order not only allowed private research like Geron’s to continue unabated, but it also approved federal funding for 60 pre-existing lines that – like all HESCs – had the ability to regenerate themselves indefinitely.

In his statement, President Obama declared that “medical miracles do not happen simply by accident,” but rather by “painstaking and costly research” aided by “a government willing to support that work,” citing cancer treatments, vaccines and the sequencing of the human genome as evidence.

Contrary to Obama’s assertion, these examples instead reveal the true engine of scientific progress: private ingenuity, aided far more often by “accident” than by government funding.

Some of the most common cancer treatments in use today are the result of sheer luck and experimentation. Chemotherapy is the product of a routine medical examination following an accidental exposure of mustard gas during World War II, and radiation therapy traces its beginnings to physicist Wilhelm Roentgen’s accidental discovery of x-rays.

Many of the life-saving vaccines developed by famous Americans are a result of private funding. Jonas Salk discovered the polio vaccine with support from the March of Dimes. Maurice Hilleman, known as the “most successful vaccinologist in history,” developed more than three dozen vaccines – including measles, mumps, hepatitis, chickenpox and pneumonia – while working for Bristol-Myers Squibb and Merck & Co.

Even the progress of the publicly-funded Human Genome Project was surpassed by a private enterprise. As documented in James Shreeve’s The Genome War, the Celera Corporation sequenced the human genome at a fraction of the public project’s cost ($300 million in private funding vs. $3 billion in taxpayer dollars), and at a pace that was four years faster.

The only thing this government seems to excel at better than private enterprise is dismissing the ethical considerations behind these decisions. The President relies instead on the false comfort of “consensus,” both in favor of HESC research and against “the use of cloning for human reproduction.” He fails the American people by not only refusing to offer a coherent argument in either case, but also by attempting to wave away the questions entirely.

But they remain: Does the potential for finding cures trump the potential for life? Since adult stem cells can be made pluripotent, shouldn’t we use them instead? If a living organism will be destroyed anyway, is it ethical to experiment on it? If it’s ethical to destroy embryos for scientific research, why is it “profoundly wrong” to clone ourselves and grow spare organs or body parts?

These and other questions are what cause those who seriously study the issue to become less certain about the ethical and moral conclusions.