Douglas Turner's April 16 column urges legislators to "slow down on stem cell bills." As a person with Parkinson's disease, I disagree. Patients facing life-threatening illnesses cannot afford more slowdowns. Progress already has been impeded by six years of President Bush's limits on funding of embryonic stem cell research.
Turner's article included some misleading and inaccurate statements. The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act (S.5), passed by the Senate, would lift these limits. It would not fund the creation or destruction of human embryos, and it is not about abortion.
The bill contains strict ethical guidelines specifying that stem cells must be derived from embryos that have been donated from in vitro fertilization clinics, were created for fertility treatment and were in excess of the need of the individuals seeking treatment. About 400,000 leftover embryos are in clinic freezers. They are regularly discarded as medical waste. Would it not be more ethical to use them to help find cures for debilitating and deadly diseases?
Lifting the limits on NIH funding is supported by more than 600 disease advocacy, medical and research associations, and thousands of scientists and doctors including the director of the National Institutes of Health. Recently testifying before a Senate committee, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni, who was appointed by the president, stated:
"From my standpoint, it is clear today that American science will be better served, and the nation will be better served, if we let our scientists have access to more stem cell lines. I think it is important for us not to fight with one hand tied behind our back . . . "
The NIH is the world's largest funder of biomedical research. No private funder comes close. No field of research can advance without access to this kind of government support. Yet in 2005, the NIH funded more than $607 million for stem cell research overall, but only $39 million for embryonic research.
To help overcome this inequality and bolster promising science, states such as California, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland and New York are providing funding.
Claims have been made of adult stem cells "curing some 70 diseases," including Parkinson's. If this were true, I would not be writing this article. Most successful adult stem cell treatments have involved blood diseases thus far. Other diseases will respond best to embryonic stem cell treatments. More research is needed to know for sure.
Turner worries about being "shoved into a brave new world that nobody really wants." My hope for the future is for a world in which diseases like Parkinson's will be considered history. But Bush threatens to veto S.5, again dashing the hopes of millions of Americans. Cures eventually will be discovered, but by continuing to limit NIH funding, it will take so much longer.
Linda Herman is New York State Grassroots coordinator and Parkinson's Action Network patient representative, New Yorkers for the Advancement of Medical Research. She lives in Snyder.