Obama and the future of stem cell politics

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky November 26, 2008
Biopolitical Times
Side view of President Obama. In the background are two American flags.

[ Cross-posted from "What's new in life sciences research" at ScienceBlogs, where Marcy Darnovsky will be posting over the next month. ]

Remember stem cell politics during the 2004 presidential campaign?

VP candidate John Edwards told a crowd that embryonic stem cell research would allow people like Christopher Reeve "to walk, get up out of that wheelchair and walk again." In a speech at the Democratic convention, Ron Reagan Jr. predicted that cloning-based stem cell research would produce for each of us a "personal biological repair kit standing by at the hospital." Meanwhile, opponents of deriving stem cells from embryos lost no opportunity to proclaim equally miraculous powers for "adult" stem cells.

What a difference four years make.

The stem cell world has been reshaped, both in terms of the science and politics. There are no longer only two types of stem cells - adult stem cells that don't require embryos, and embryonic stem cells that have stirred all the controversy. Over the past year, researchers around the world have developed and refined the derivation and control of a third type of stem cells - "induced pluripotent stem cells" or "reprogrammed cells." These are produced from ordinary body cells, without using embryos or women's eggs. (The eggs are used in efforts - so far unsuccessful - to derive stem cells from cloned embryos. More about this in a subsequent post.)

The political changes have been as dramatic. Stem cells figured little in the 2008 campaign, with the exception of a Michigan ballot measure. Both presidential candidates supported embryonic stem cell research that use embryos created but not used for reproductive purposes, and President-elect Obama has made it clear that he will lift the Bush administration's restrictions on federal funding of it.

What's likely to happen after that?

The shift in policy will be valuable for both obvious and not-so-obvious reason. It will normalize the funding of stem cell research, putting it on a level playing field with other promising medical investigations and experiments. It will help move stem cell research away from its status as a hot-button partisan wedge issue. Hopefully, it will open discussion of stem cells to issues other than the status of human embryos.

A new chapter in the politics of stem cells will be good for science, and good for efforts to bring democratic accountability to the development of all genetic, reproductive and biomedical technologies. Here are some of the things we need:

  • Researchers and research advocates (as well as bloggers and journalists) should take a sober look at the exaggeration and hype that have shaped the field over the past decade. They should re-commit themselves to responsible descriptions of their work's prospects, and refrain from exaggerating the likelihood and imminence of breakthroughs, treatments and cures.
  • Democratic Congress members preparing stem cell legislation have indicated that their bills will include provisions for regulation and oversight of the research. Let's hope the structures and rules they propose are effective and transparent, and applicable to research whether it is publicly or privately funded.
  • Lawmakers and research review boards need to pay special attention to safeguarding participants in clinical trials, whether of adult stem cells, embryonic stem cells or (further off) reprogrammed stem cells. Because stem cell researchers, like other biomedical scientists, are increasingly involved in commercial enterprises, conflicts between patient well-being and research advancement are not uncommon. Overheated expectations about stem cells further raise the stakes.

And one more thing: All of us should think carefully about the lessons of the stem cell wars for future decisions about human biotechnologies. I'm definitely not of the mind that we should take politics out of science - that's not possible, and winds up hiding rather than taming partisan motives, commercial prerogatives, and special interests.

The stem cell wars have provided a great example of how not to conduct the politics of science. Our job now is to work out what a democratic politics of human biotechnology would look like.

Any ideas?