More MS news articles for May 2001

For many, stem cell research last best hope

posted 05/25/01

Soon, perhaps within a couple of weeks, President Bush will make a decision that could affect the lives of millions of people.

Over the last year, medical researchers have been reporting potential breakthroughs in treating afflictions that have resisted effective cures or treatments.

Some of these maladies, such as Alzheimer's, diabetes and heart disease, are responsible for thousands of deaths each year. Other diseases, such as Parkinson's disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), are less common but just as deadly.

A decision by Bush barring federal funding for embryonic stem cell research could hinder efforts to treat such afflictions.

For the sake of full disclosure, I must say that I have a personal stake in advancing stem cell research. Five and a half years ago, I learned I have ALS, aka Lou Gehrig's disease. I have lost the use of my hands, arms and legs. I can no longer dress or feed myself, and I use an electric wheelchair to get around.

I am not alone in this. At one time or another, all of us are touched by tragic circumstances brought on by horrific diseases. We have seen families struggle to cope with caring for a spouse or parent while medical costs cripple family finances.

Stem cells are derived from the cells that form in the earliest stages of embryonic development. Given the proper chemical signals, stem cells can produce virtually any type of human tissue, which gives them magnificent healing potential.

It's easy to see why the Bush administration is conflicted by embryonic stem cell research.

On the one hand, there are those opposed to abortion. They contend that destroying embryonic stem cells is the equivalent of killing a fetus. But abortion opponents are not of one mind when it comes to stem cell research. Many members of Congress who are staunch pro-lifers are supporters of stem cell research.

On the other hand, there are the millions of patients, their families, friends, doctors and medical researchers who see stem cell research as their best chance to treat and cure many of humanity's most prolific killers.

In 1998, Congress barred federal funds from being used for any research that harms or destroys human embryos. Last year, the Clinton administration forged a compromise allowing researchers to harvest unused embryos from private invitro fertilization clinics -- embryos that were destined to be destroyed anyway.

The National Institutes of Health developed research guidelines and announced that it would consider funding research involving embryonic stem cells. Emboldened by the announcement, researchers submitted proposals seeking federal funds.

The day before the committee was to meet a few weeks ago, the Bush administration canceled the meeting. There was no public announcement, but the Washington Post reported that the administration wanted more time to sort out its position on stem cell research.

There are no guarantees that stem cell research will yield any miracle cures. Even under the best circumstances, such cures are probably years away. Nevertheless, time is of the essence.

In providing federal money, Bush could smooth the way for scientific research that could benefit all of humanity.

And that would be quite a legacy.

Senior editor Rich Brooks can be reached at 486-3051 or