Stem cell research: The new medicine of the future

December 07, 2004

While the federal government ponders the ethical implications of therapeutic cloning, California is blazing a trail to the future. The Golden State has caught the attention of stem-cell scientists across the world as it takes its first steps toward becoming, thanks to Proposition 71, a destination of choice for stem-cell research, with government support to the tune of $3 billion.

Questions about the ethics of using embryonic stem cells for disease research have threatened to slow progress in many countries, including the United States. But while the Bush administration has enacted limits on federal funds for research using embryonic stem cells and U.S. policymakers struggle to find a balance between seemingly irreconcilable points of view, the United Kingdom moves steadily toward a future in which tissue reengineering may become as commonplace as the tetanus booster. It's an experience the United States should learn from.

The key in the United Kingdom is an unprecedented degree of collaboration among government, commercial and academic players. A model of early and aggressive regulation has encouraged important and ethically acceptable areas of stem-cell research, while criminalizing irresponsible and unethical endeavors. The Human Fertilization and Embryology Act of 1990 allows the generation and use of embryos for research, but prohibits research on any embryos older than 14 days and enforces the UK's strict legislation, promising stringent fines and up to 10 years' imprisonment for those convicted of reproductive cloning.

In the United States, however, the approach to stem-cell research is quite different. This contrast was evident during the contentious campaign to pass Prop. 71. In many ways, the campaign was seen as a symbol of the clash between socially liberal California and the conservative Bush administration.

Close regulation and a climate of open public debate have helped the United Kingdom stay at the forefront of this scientific field as increasingly controversial questions arise. Reliable cures for stem-cell research are still years away by any estimate. But the early investment is already paying off, as witnessed in the arrival of American researchers leaving the United States to continue their work in the United Kingdom.

Much of the difference centers on ethics. Views are polarized in the United States in a way that they haven't been in the United Kingdom, where ethics are not considered absolute. The country has found a way of balancing the benefits against the risk. The stem-cell debate has started there and is now left to run its course. Once we've answered the questions, perhaps we'll be able to pass them back to our colleagues in the States. In the meantime, the United Kingdom is performing embryonic stem cell research with tight regulations, including the illegality of reproductive cloning. Which we believe should also be made illegal in the United States.

With the passage of Prop. 71, hope is on the horizon. The proposition has helped establish the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to dispense the grants and loans, supporting research from the lab and on through clinical trials. On the wings of the passage of Prop. 71, the premiere stem-cell scientists from the United Kingdom will meet with leading researchers in California this week to discuss the latest findings and identify collaboration opportunities. This is a good first step for ongoing collaborations between the United Kingdom and California, which is now poised to be the U.S. center of stem-cell research.

Ron Reagan said it best at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, "the issue of stem cell research may be the greatest medical breakthrough in our or in any lifetime, many opponents to the research are well-meaning and sincere. Their belief on stem cell research is just that--an article of faith, and they are entitled to it, but it does not follow that the theology of a few should be allowed to forestall the health and well-being of the many."

If stem cell research is allowed to flourish, as it is in the United Kingdom, treatments derived from stem cells could potentially cure a wide range of fatal and debilitating illnesses: diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, lymphoma, spinal cord injuries and many other ailments afflicting millions.

In the United Kingdom, we're breaking new ground, rewriting medical books and helping to usher in the new medicine of the future. We fully acclaim Prop. 71 and view it as leap in the right direction. Whether it will be enough to bring back top stem cell researchers to the United States is a question only time can answer.

Roger Pedersen is a stem-cell researcher formerly of the University of California at San Francisco who left the United States in 2001 to continue his research at the multidisciplinary Cambridge Stem Cell Institute in England. Dame Julia Polak, M.D., is head of the Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine Center at Imperial College in London and one of the longest survivors of heart- and lung-transplant surgery in the United Kingdom.

By Roger Pedersen and Julia Polak
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British Information Services

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