Stem cell scientists fear election fallout

Amy Hamblin

Stem cell researchers at the Feinberg School of Medicine are concerned that President Bush might interpret his majority victory as a sign of the public’s support for limitations on stem cell research.

But a California initiative on stem cell research reveals that more voters there support further study of controversial embryonic stem cells.

Less than a week after the election, it’s unclear how Bush will deal with the issue in the next four years, either viewing his margin of victory as a mandate or looking at the California model as a litmus test for the public’s support, said John Kessler, chief of neurology at Feinberg and a stem cell researcher.

“I think the whole scientific establishment is holding its breath,” said Kessler, who testified before a U.S. Senate committee last year about increasing federal funding for stem cell research. “I think we are all concerned right now about whether we will be allowed to advance our research.”

For Kessler, more is at stake than the future of his career. Three years ago his daughter — a former nationally ranked skier — was involved in a serious ski accident that left her confined to a wheelchair.

Kessler calls the current federal policy a stumbling block in the search for cures that could help his daughter and people who suffer from Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, diabetes or many other human ailments.

Under current policy, the federal government budgets about $25 million annually for embryonic stem cell research that is restricted to about 20 cell lines. Many scientists believe that stem cells extracted from embryos hold the most promise because these cells could be used to form any tissue or organ, unlike adult stem cells.

“One can only hope now that the pressure to be re-elected has eased, Bush will take a different approach,” Kessler said. “I have seen nothing to suggest that (Bush) has deeply felt objection to it. The decision he made was political.”

But Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist at Feinberg, noted that Bush is better positioned now to accomplish his conservative agenda, with Republican control over both the Senate and House of Representatives.

“This election doesn’t foretell what the American people support, except for the people of California,” she said, acknowledging that Bush could see his victory as a mandate. “In most other states, Bush’s ‘moral support’ was given as a key issue that people voted on.”

Zoloth said the future of stem cell research might not have looked so bleak with Democratic nominee John Kerry, who pledged $100 million to embryonic stem cell research if elected.

Worried about government funding under Bush, scientists are trying to tap into another financial resource — private donors. Mary Hendrix, scientific director at Children’s Memorial Hospital’s Institute for Education and Research, recently left the University of Iowa with 10 of her lab researchers after the state passed a ban on certain stem cell research.

She now is involved in a private fund raising effort to further her study of stem cells.

Meanwhile, Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Feinberg are teaming up to create privately funded facilities where new therapies derived from stem cell research could be used on patients.

But state initiatives like California’s may save researchers from soliciting private funding. The California initiative — supported by 59 percent of voters — allocates $3 billion to establish the Institute for Regenerative Medicine and fund 10 years of research.

However, doubts are beginning to surface about whether the initiative is an accurate gauge of public support.

“There’s a huge question mark about what the voters of California actually thought the initiative was about,” said Gene Tarne, the communications director for Do No Harm: The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics, an advocacy group supportive of adult — but not embryonic — stem cell research.

Although the California initiative was enacted to supplement gaps in federal funding, Tarne said the new law may take some financial pressure off of the federal government.

Despite possible negative consequences, William Rymer, a neurologist at Feinberg, said California set a precedent that states likely will follow.

“I think the California model of doing (funding) by state will be copied,” said Rymer, director of research at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. But, he explained, states cannot rely on Bush to reverse his previous stance on the issue.

“Bush made a promise to the religious arm of Republican party and I think it will be very hard for him to back off,” Rymer said.

Reach Amy Hamblin at [email protected].