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Mar. 04, 2011

Uncertain Politics and Uneasy Scientists

by Sam Flatow

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Stem cells are the penicillin of the 21st century, as difficult to distinguish from magic as helping the lame walk–which may in fact be one of their many uses. But the research itself has been hindered by politics.

Funding has been an issue since the creation of the Dickey-Wicker amendment in 1996, a two-part addition to the budget that cut all federal funding for any research involving the creation or destruction of a human embryo.

President George W. Bush did open a loophole for scientists in August 2001, by allowing federal funding for research on stem cell lines created prior to his announcement. But even today, the Dickey-Wicker amendment lives on, despite President Obama’s 2009 executive order, which aimed to revoke all restrictions to research.

Because soon after President Obama lifted research funding restrictions, a lawsuit was brought before a federal judge by plaintiffs Nightlight Christian Adoptions, the Christian Medical Association and “Embryos” in general. The scientific community largely ignored the lawsuit, viewing it as a publicity stunt to forward a religious agenda.

But in August 2010, the federal judge issued an injunction to withhold Obama’s executive order because some of the plaintiffs, specifically two adult stem cell scientists, claimed that granting federal funding to embryonic stem cell research would harm their own progress, by forcing them to compete for research funding.

A recent survey in the journal Cell Stem Cell has found quite the opposite. By raising new lawsuits to muddle the efforts of human embryonic stem cell research, scientists studying other types of stem cells–even those not derived from embryos–have reported that their work is being inhibited, not as much by the funding cut, but by the political uncertainty surrounding stem cell research.

“Even if you go away from those working with human embryonic [stem cells] to those working with induced pluripotent stem cells or mouse embryonic stem cells, many of them report a substantial impact” on their research, says Aaron Levine, assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the author of this recent study.

In other words, several of the plaintiffs have slowed down their own research, and that of others, on behalf of two religious organizations and “Embryos” (with a capital E). And a 15-year-old budgetary footnote is slowing the advancement of medical progress.

There are two possible options for science to prevail. First, the courts can rule in favor of the new Obama legislation. Second, the new budget can simply leave out the Dickey-Wicker amendment, therefore making the entire court case irrelevant. Until then, those suffering from soon-to-be-curable diseases will just have to wait.

About Sam Flatow

Sam is an assistant producer at Science Friday where he prepares the tasty SciFri snacks and blogs about smart cephalopods and zombie ants.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

Science Friday® is produced by the Science Friday Initiative, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

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