Technology: Stem Cell Research - Can Kerry Let the Genie out of the Test Tube? ; A Breakthrough in Medical Science May Be Balked in America by a Lack of Financial Support. Tim Webb Asks If This Will Lead to a Brain Drain to the UK
Webb, Tim, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
The Republican Party convention in New York last week was dominated by accusations about who was most fit to lead the US - President George Bush or his Democratic rival John Kerry. But while the campaigns of both parties have focused on such issues as homeland security and the war in Iraq, the controversial subject of stem cell research has also been moving up the political agenda.
Senator Kerry suggested last month that he would remove restrictions on this area of medical research, reflecting recent opinion polls in the US which indicate it is gaining acceptance among Americans. This prompted the First Lady, Laura Bush, to defend her husband's hardline policy.
Stem cells represent the earliest stages in the development of the human body. As an embryo starts to develop in the womb, embryonic stem cells reproduce themselves to generate different types of tissue, from which all parts of the body form. Stem cells are also developed during adulthood (although in far smaller numbers than in embryos), replenishing ageing tissues with healthy cells.
Scientists want to research ways of manipulating stem cells in order to produce new body tissues that can replace diseased and damaged ones. They hope to use the technique to tackle diseases that attack the central nervous system, such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, as well as cancer and diabetes.
The science is controversial because to remove embryonic stem cells is to prevent the embryo growing into a human being. For this reason, it is strongly opposed by religious groups, who in America are traditional supporters of the Republican Party. There are also more general concerns that stem cells could be used for human cloning.
Government funding is vital for any non-commercial research, but in the US, none is available for scientists working with specially created stem cells. Limited federal funding is offered only for research on stem cells that have already been developed outside the laboratory, for example using cells left over from IVF programmes.
Dr Stephen Minger, director of the Stem Cell Biology Laboratory at King's College London, one of the leading stem cell research centres in the UK, says the US funding system is "schizophrenic".
"In the US, if you have the money, you can do anything you want," explains Dr Minger, himself an American. "There is no law restricting cloning, for example."
He adds that state law can also contravene federal law on funding, as has happened recently in California. …