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Researchers are poised to use embryonic stem cells in treating patients with spinal cord injuries and a form of blindness. But the future of stem-cell research is in doubt following a recent court decision on federal funding. Promise, risks and moral objections to stem cell research.
- Dr George Daley Director, Stem Cell Transplantation Program professor, Hematology/Oncology Children's Hospital, Boston
- Sean Tipton Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research
- Robert Destro Professor of law, director, Interdisciplinary Program in Law & Religion Columbus School of Law The Catholic University of America
- Peter Boyer Staff writer, The New Yorker
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Yesterday, researchers at NIH were ordered to suspend immediately all products, projects involving human embryonic stem cells. The directive follows a recent federal court decision that concludes use of these cells violates current federal law. Joining me to talk about the decision and the future of embryonic stem cell research, Sean Tipton from the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, Robert Destro, he is professor of law at the Catholic University of America. Joining us by phone, Dr. George Daley. He is director of the Stem Cell Transplantation Program at Children's Hospital in Boston. And finally, Peter Boyer, he is staff writer for The New Yorker.
MS. DIANE REHMThroughout the hour, we'll invite your calls, questions. Join us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Feel free to join us on Facebook or send us a Tweet. Sean Tipton, if I could start with you. Please explain for us yesterday's order at the NIH and the earlier court decision.
MR. SEAN TIPTONThank you, Diane. Well, what happened is that, in response to this federal court ruling to stop all funding on embryonic stem cell research, the National Institutes of Health sent out a communiqué both to their scientists who are on the NIH campus and the even larger numbers who were around the country, essentially stopping work on embryonic stem cell research-related grants. Now, grants that have been issued and were funded prior to August 23, which was the date of the injunction, will be allowed to continue. So investigations that are in the middle will be able to keep going. But the NIH has stopped all work reviewing and grant -- and awarding new grants, that grants that were in process, including work to approve new embryonic stem cell tissue lines which would have been eligible for additional investigation.
REHMNow, what did you make of the director of NIH's -- the director of the NIH, Francis Collins', statement that this would pour sand into the engine of discovery?
TIPTONWell, this is a very devastating ruling for the millions of Americans suffering from conditions like diabetes, Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injury, cancer, who were hoping that American scientists would be able to learn to tap the enormous potential of the embryonic stem cell tissues. These tissues are what scientists refer to as pluripotent, that is, they have the ability to become every kind of cell in the body. And what scientists are now working on is how to understand how that works and to be able to turn them into tissues, which could be used to take care of conditions like diabetes or spinal cord injury and is a very powerful research model.
TIPTONSo that is, you can have a tissue line that maybe has a -- comes from an embryo that has a specific kind of disease, you can then study various treatments and drugs on those tissue lines and see if you can come up with a better treatment. This has now stopped it. An investigation -- we've been working for over 10 years to try to get federal funds to allow the best American scientists to do their best work using the best materials. This has now been stopped once again. What we are seeing is that opponents of stem cell research have pulled out every trick in the book to try to bring a halt to this research and it's temporarily, at least, halted.
REHMBut just to reiterate, those projects funded before the 23rd of August can continue?
TIPTONThat's what the NIH released, the guidance to their extramural community last night saying that.
REHMAll right. Turning to you, Dr. Daley, at Children's Hospital in Boston. Tell us what the judge's order means on a practical basis to stem cell researchers like yourself and around the country.
DR. GEORGE DALEYThis injunction has been incredibly disruptive and confusing to us. We immediately reacted to the very strong wording of the injunction and stopped spending any federal money. Now, last night, we received some directions saying that any projects that were funded prior to August 23 would be allowed to continue. I, unfortunately, as a practitioner on the ground, am very uncomfortable with that, because some of the legal advice we've been getting is that we are, as agents of the government spending federal money, are still subject to the restrictions of this injunction. So my institution, after many discussions, is taking a very conservative approach.
DALEYSo I literally asked every scientist in my lab, who is either funded by the federal government perhaps on a training grant or working on human ES cells, to transfer all of that work into our core laboratory, to stop doing research in our own group. I have collaborators at the National Institutes of Health who have stopped all of their human embryonic stem cell research. This has basically research stopping dead in its tracks.
REHMNow, tell me whether you talked to other colleagues involved in embryonic stem cell research at other institutions around the country and whether they are going to follow your lead as far as you are halting all research.
DALEYWell, I have received lots of emails and communication from others asking for our -- you know, what our response is going to be. I think every institution was waiting for greater direction from the NIH. Every institution, ultimately, is gonna have to make their own decision about what directive to follow. I just happen -- have to feel that as a scientist who has been working in this space, who’s been fighting for the freedom to use embryonic stem cells, which are enormously vital tools for research, that to have another monkey wrench thrown into the works has been incredibly disruptive. We've had a decade of restrictions. It's really taking a lot of the life out of what is otherwise a very exciting area of science and it is bad public policy.
REHMWell, on that note, turning to you, Peter Boyer, as a staff writer for The New Yorker, explain the Obama administration's guidelines and how they differed from those issued during the Bush administration.
MR. PETER BOYERYes, Ma'am. Hey, Diane.
BOYERYou know, it is -- I hear the doctor understandably talking about the confusion that exists in the lab and man, I can only imagine that. It is a -- I think that Frances Collins has called it a devastating decision in its effect, but I just don't see how it can be that much of a surprise. This didn’t really come out of the clear blue and it is again, after a decade of disputing the whole question of embryonic stem cell research in a political arena, it wasn't really settled by the executive order issued in March of last year by President Obama.
BOYERHe -- it seemed to be settled. He did enunciate a new policy that departed from President Bush's policy in one key regard. You'll remember President Bush, in August of 2001, really, for the first time, allowed the expenditure of federal funds on human embryonic stem cell research. He did it in a very limited way, though. He said, in essence, there will be Bush stem cell lines, namely those that already exist. They didn't know precisely how many would be useful at that time, but beyond those that exist as of this moment, August 9, I think it was, 2001, no more federal money can go into this research.
BOYERAnd that's the way it stood until Obama came in and said, we will keep the other Bush restriction, in terms of how these stem cell lines are to be extracted from the embryos and so on, but we will lift that date. And basically, that meant that federal money could go into the creation of new stem cell lines, but what all of this neglects is this other determinative, as it turns out, federal policy, which came from Congress, which comes from Congress every year, which is a rider, the Dickey-Wicker rider, it's called. It is attached annually to the funding that supports this research at NIH and what it does is specifically say, no federal money can go towards any research on human embryos that result in the damage, harm or destruction of that embryo.
BOYERAnd what the judge did was basically a pretty clear, straight forward -- you might -- some might see it as radical, but it was a pretty strict interpretation of the -- of that amendment. And what the Obama administration, perhaps, should have pushed for, when it was enunciating its new policy, was a revision...
BOYER...or at least a revisiting by a very Democratic Congress of that underlying problem. And that is the snare that has resided in the background all of these years and that is the snare that Judge Royce Lamberth triggered with his injunction.
REHMPeter Boyer. He is staff writer for The New Yorker. Dr. George Daley, he is director of the Stem Cell Transplantation Program at Children's Hospital in Boston. Sean Tipton is with the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research. When we come back, we're going to open the phones, take your calls, 800-433-8850. Send your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can join us on Facebook. You can send us a tweet. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMAnd welcome back. As many of you now know, yesterday the National Institutes of Health ordered an immediate halt to all embryonic stem cell research taking place on the NIH campus. It was said that research projects funded before August 23 can continue. However, as you've already heard from Dr. George Daley at the Children's Hospital in Boston, he is going to put a halt to all federally funded programs within his research program because everything remains quite unsettled. Now, turning to you, Robert Destro, professor of law at The Catholic University of America, where did this legislation originate? Who financed it?
PROF. ROBERT DESTROWell, let's begin with the usual adage in litigation, is that if you want a good sense for where it came from, you have -- you do have to follow the money. In this case, the money was going to flow from the new interpretation, the new guidelines and there was gonna be a new grant cycle. In several plaintiffs, a Christian adoption agency, some competing researchers, some potential adoptive -- embryo adoptive parents filed suit, you know, because basically, what you have here is a -- you know, depending on how you look at it, is a -- there's certainly a pool of up to 600,000 frozen embryos around the country.
PROF. ROBERT DESTROAnd so there's -- there are various claims being staked to them. And this case is just a part of the way in which those claims are being staked. The research community wants access to them through donations, the adoption community wants access to them so that they can be transplanted and carried to term and the two researchers who actually won the case actually said, look, you know, we think -- we wanna have a shot at the available pool of research money. And quite frankly, the research pool of money will go up if you cut off the human embryo -- embryonic stem cell research funds.
REHMOkay. Let me understand this. What you're saying is that these privately funded researchers wanted to put a halt to federally funded projects because they wanted a bigger share of the pot?
DESTROWell, it's -- I think that’s putting it a little bit too much with the…
REHMIt's harsh, I know.
DESTROIt's harsh, right.
REHMBut is that not the reality?
DESTROYes, these are -- there are three competitive ways of looking at stem cell research. There's the embryonic stem cell, there's the adult stem cell and then there's the induced stem cells, so all three of those are -- they're basically separate but related tracks and they compete with each other for funding.
REHMSo, Peter Boyer, how much of this research is going on around the country in private hands as opposed to being federally funded?
BOYERWell, quite a lot of stem cell research is going on around the country. I was surprised to find out the degree to which the Feds fund the other non-embryonic -- non-human embryonic stem cell research. I mean, I -- there's multiples of the amount they spend on human embryonic stem cell research. So just in terms of stem cell research, the three types just mentioned, that's -- that is going on privately and publicly and there is a good deal of privately financed human embryonic stem cell research going on.
BOYERBut what happens now and again, it's the confusion that has arisen that some of my fellow guests have mentioned, is a laboratory may be working simultaneously, may have a publicly financed piece of work going on over here and a privately financed piece of work going on over there. During the Bush years, they had to -- you know, there had to be a strict wall between that and that wall, in essence, was lifted. It's very costly, as Francis Collins said, administratively and, you know, financially to maintain that separation and now that that wall has been re-imposed effectively, at least for the time being, you know, it's very much up in the air with the...
BOYER...how these labs are gonna respond.
REHMSean Tipton, give us a sense of the kind of research taking place around the country that relies, at least in part, on embryonic stem cells.
TIPTONWell, I think there's a great deal of work being done, as I said, trying to learn how to manipulate these cells so they can become other kinds of tissues that might be useful for people suffering from different -- from spinal cord injury or from diabetes. So in order to do that, the researchers have to understand how the embryonic stem cell lines get their power to become other kinds of...
REHMAs opposed to adult stem cells.
TIPTONRight. I think most scientists, and certainly Dr. Daley can comment on this, would feel that at some point, in fact, we may not need embryonic stem cells anymore, but now, we have to understand how they work in order to tap the power of other kinds of cells that may happen. And if I could just make a comment on the competition aspect, I think we talked about competition for two resources. One is federal dollars and one are embryo -- and the second are embryos. So in the federal dollars contest, the whole scientific system, the NIH system, is built on scientific competition, so the best science gets funded.
TIPTONSo I'm not sure, using as precedent, what would stop any scientist from suing anytime they don't get a grant because, of course, that means somebody else got that money and that will in fact harm them. Any time Professor A gets money and Professor B doesn't, it seems, under this ruling, that Professor B could bring suit. On the competition for embryos, the NIH guidelines were very clear that the decision had to be made by the patients for whom the embryos were created, that they did not wanna use them themselves for family building and they were unwilling to donate them to another couple who might wanna use these for family building, so essentially, the question is, are we going to discard these embryos in the medical waste bag?
REHMJust throw them away.
TIPTONOr are they gonna be used -- could they be used for research? And dealing with the infertility patient community a great deal, I can tell you this is a very difficult disease. They would love to see the opportunity for something good to come from the hard work and suffering that they have been through. And if something -- if they can contribute something that might lead to a cure for some of the condition, they would be thrilled for that.
DESTROWell, I think it's overstating the case just a little bit to say that a disgruntled non-funded researcher could sue. That's not what the judge said. He said that these -- that the researchers involved in this case, you know, had -- their concern was with the guidelines. And it's a little bit of a misnomer to say that the President lifted the curtain, because the curtain didn't actually -- isn't gonna lift until the effective date of the guidelines, which has now been delayed.
DESTROAnd so this is a case where I think it's very easy to blame the court, you know, and to blame the theory of the case, when in reality, you really have to go back, and, as Dr. Daley pointed out, you have to blame the lawyers because over 10 years ago, they engaged in a lot of creative lawyering because they didn't really want to tell the secretary back then that no means no. And so that everybody just kind of assumed that if we split some hairs here and say that, well, it doesn't -- even though they have to destroy the embryos, it's not covered, when the limit to the statute is very, very clear.
REHMSee, I'm still confused because if indeed an embryo is created and it may be about to be discarded, what is the difference between allowing that embryo to die because it's being discarded or using it for scientific experimentation? I don't get the difference.
DESTROWell, the big difference, and the reason behind the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, is that the language of the amendment and certainly the people who supported it see -- would see that question as the same as, well, a person is about to die in a capital case anyway, so why not go ahead and do some medical research on them? If you unfreeze the embryos, they die as a matter of natural course. If you give them for human experimentation, and that's really what this is, then you're gonna have that ethical dimension, ethical debate. And that's why you have these adoptive parents. They said, look, these are potential children, you know, why shouldn't we have access to them, too?
REHMSo you've got a whole group of competitors who are moving forward with this. Dr. Daley, can you talk about the kind of experimentation you are doing, what types of diseases you are looking into and how you have been using these embryos?
DALEYYes. My laboratory studies blood diseases and cancer and we use all of the tools, which include adult stem cells, the so-called hematopoietic or blood stem cell, the embryonic stem cell and a new type of stem cell called an induced pluripotent stem cell, which has many of the same features as embryonic stem cell.
REHMNow, I wanna stop you right there because I'd like to understand where the embryonic stem cells you are getting are coming from.
DALEYMy laboratory has developed 11 of the first 13 human embryonic stem cells that were approved under the new NIH policy and whose status for federal research is now in limbo. But there has been over a thousand human embryonic stem cells generated today around the world from discarded embryos. And I do think it's important to reemphasize the fact that couples who are going through in vitro fertilization, as a matter of safety, generate more embryos than they will use in their own family building and they have the deep personal right to determine the disposition of those embryos. Many have precluded their adoption by other couples and have said, instead, that rather than discard them as medical waste, they would prefer that they be donated to medical research.
REHMHow do you respond to that, Robert Destro?
DESTROWell, I mean, I think that Dr. Daley is absolutely right. He's described exactly the way the situation is, but it was -- I was surprised to learn a couple of years ago that Health and Human Services puts a fair amount of money into embryo adoption as well and largely to meet the needs of the infertile couple community. And several of the states have now responded by passing -- Georgia now has an embryo adoption law, so you really do have a competition for these cells. And the ethical issue at the bottom of it is whether the embryo's a piece of property or is it to be treated like a human being.
REHMRobert Destro, he is...
DALEYGeorge -- Diane, if I might add...
REHM...professor of law at the Catholic University of America and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Go ahead, Dr. Daley.
DALEYMy understanding is that there have been over 4 million babies born to date from in vitro fertilization. The number of babies that have actually been born through embryo adoption numbers in the hundreds. It's a miniscule percentage. And many, many couples who go through this feel strongly that they would not ask that their embryos be adopted by other couples. They are the ones who have the right to determine the disposition of the cellular material they generate through IVF and I think there are many people who look at this issue and see the tremendous value to medical research to the ultimate pursuit of cures for patients coming from this vital area of research and see it as a very important and morally driven alternative.
TIPTONI think it's...
TIPTON...important to note that embryo donation for infertility treatments has been offered in the United States for nearly 20 years. What we are seeing is that it's really not a real popular option. The fact is that people are in the infertility clinic largely because they want to have a genetically related child. If they wish to adopt, there are born children who they can adopt. If they are willing to give up that genetic tie, then they do that. Donation of an embryo, and that's what it is, it's a medical procedure of a tissue that has a potential to become a human. It is not an adoption procedure.
TIPTONBut it's not proven that popular either with donors -- so the donor families develop some discomfort with it, nor is it that popular with recipients. Having said that, it is offered at almost every infertility clinic in the country. It is not that difficult for would be recipients to find a patient, to find a potential donor. Often the hurdle is not one of the availability of the embryos, the hurdle is one of actively engaging in the consent process and because it is so infrequently desired by patients, a number of clinics don't have the legal infrastructure to offer it.
REHMDr. Daley, we're coming up on a break here, but a number of people, I'm sure, would like to know whether you have used adult stem cells and to what extent they have been successful in your research.
DALEYI'm eager to talk about that. As director of our Stem Cell Transplantation Program at Children's Hospital, I am responsible for a clinical division that does about 80 bone marrow transplants per year for kids with fatal diseases like leukemia and various genetic diseases like immune deficiency and sickle cell anemia. We do very well. That is the curative potential for these relatively rare set of diseases of the adult stem cell. However, for the millions of patients who are afflicted with diabetes, Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injury and a variety of other ills, this approach simply doesn't pertain. That's why in my own research laboratory, we continue to not only study adult stem cells, but we are very excited about the promise of the future. And the future is in this different type of stem cell, the pluripotent stem cells.
REHMRobert Destro, do you wanna comment on the different uses of adult stem cells versus embryonic stem cells?
DESTROWell, I mean, most of that really is, quite frankly, a scientific question. Dr. Daley, I think, has addressed it, Sean Tipton has addressed it as well. And I think that the important question here is whether or not the -- you know, which at least to me as a tax payer, not speaking as a lawyer now, you know, where is the money gonna go that's gonna produce the best bang for the buck in terms of getting additional treatment? I think that's what people wanna know.
REHMRobert Destro, he is professor of law at the Catholic University of America, also Dr. George Daley at Children's Hospital in Boston, Sean Tipton of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, Peter Boyer of The New Yorker.
REHMAnd we are going to open the phones now. First to Barry, who's in Orlando, Fla. Good morning. You're on the air.
BARRYOh, hello, Diane. How are you?
REHMFine, thanks. Go right ahead.
BARRYWell, thanks for taking my call.
REHMGo right ahead, sir.
BARRYI was very interested to hear this topic, it's very timely, and I commiserate with these physicians who are in these programs, who are depending on embryonic stem cells. I think it's really a travesty that our research has been squashed. However, I would like to say that having reviewed literature and visiting clinics in other countries where they're using adult stem cells, I think there are a lot of uses for stem cells that shouldn't -- for adult stem cells that should not be overlooked. We're doing some work here in Orlando and we're poised to get started on doing a lot more. For instance, we know that the adult stem cells can have a great effect on inflammatory conditions and we think that we may be able to use them in autoimmune diseases. We may be...
REHMAll right. Dr. Daley, do you wanna comment?
DALEYYes. Yes. This is a frequently heard alternative that why do we need to use human ES if there's so much promise with adult stem cells? And I think it's not the way most physicians and scientists look at the issue. Most physicians and scientists are strongly in favor, as in my own lab, in continuing vigorously to pursue adult stem cell research. What we see, though, is that there are unique and distinct attributes of embryonic stem cells that make us want to explore their value as well. And that's why in the context of funding research of the federal government, what you have are independent scientists who review the different opportunities and based purely on scientific merit, make a judgment as to which grants to give out.
DALEYMy own lab has grants that deal with adult stem cells, embryonic stem cells, this new induced pluripotent stem cell and I think all scientists would agree that, really, the best use of the research tools has allowed the scientists to take advantage of their creativity and their intelligence and put those tools to maximal benefit.
REHMHere is a caller in Charlotte, N.C. Good morning, Jim. You're on the air.
JIMGood morning, Diane. A great, great show.
JIMI listen to you regularly.
JIMI have a grandson who has spinal cord injury in a serious accident, very similar to Christopher Reeve's injury. And through exercise and through the, Christopher Reeve's institute, he has regained some feeling in his hands and is able to dial a phone and so forth, but we've kept on -- tried to keep on top of the embryonic cell research and the spinal cord transplant for regeneration of spinal cords and I understand they've had success in both France and China with that and I think all of your guests are really right on, although they disagree in some aspects. We've got a thing here that's become so emotional, so sensational and financial that we forget about being realistic about some expectations for human improvement and regeneration of the body.
JIMThank you so much.
TIPTONWell, I think it's important to reiterate what Dr. Daley says. I think those of us in the pro-cures movement are interested in that. We're interested in cures. We are not that picky about where they come from, so we want the scientific community to compete and let's America's scientists tell us what's gonna be the best route to getting treatments for these conditions, such as this caller's grandson has suffered from. And we're never gonna be able to compare those if you're only gonna allow federally funded research on one source and a source that, at this point, we don't fully understand.
BOYERIn fact, the first FDA approved...
BOYER...clinical trial -- I'm sorry, Diane?
BOYERYeah, the first FDA approved clinical trial of a product based on embryonic stem cells is for spinal cord injury. The community has waited for a long time. This has been a trial that's been very, very many years in the making and there were something like 28,000 pages of regulatory documentation that had to be submitted in order to get the FDA comfortable with allowing the trial to go forward, but the Geron Corporation, which has been manufacturing these cells, are going to be testing these in spinal cord injury patients. It's just the first. It's the beginning of what we hope are a whole new set of approaches to regenerative medicine. Some of the treatments will come out of embryonic stem cells, some will continue to develop from adult stem cells, but we want to take all opportunities for the cure.
REHMAll right. Robert.
DESTROWell, one of the questions that I was asking during the break is, you know, what is the actual ratio of funding? And Sean was beginning to answer it, so I thought maybe he might wanna share that with the audience about how much goes to embryonic stem cells in the public and the private sector, because what you're really just talking about here is eliminating the federal funding.
TIPTONWell, it's very difficult to know what's been going on in the private sector. When you allow the research to be done by proprietary corporations, they are under no obligation to share with us...
TIPTON...the results of that or where the resource are going.
TIPTONFrom the federal funding though, the NIH has been spending, historically under the Bush years, about 10 times the amount of money on adult stem cell research they've been spending on embryonic. We're trying to get a level playing field so that the decision point is what's the best science, not the source of the tissues.
REHMHere is an interesting question from Jack who says, "Can my wife and I privately donate our unused embryos? Just as we can donate organs, don't we have ownership or control of the embryos we produce? Could we sign a form to allow embryo banks to pass our unused embryos to research centers? It seems so wasteful because the embryos are ultimately destroyed in any event." Sean.
TIPTONHere's part of why federal funding is so important.
BOYERWell, Diane, I'm sorry to interrupt, but nobody is stopping that right now. I mean there is...
TIPTONThat's -- you know, Peter, that's actually not exactly -- from a legal standpoint, that's true, from a practical standpoint, that's not the case. Yes, IVF patients maintain dispositional control over their embryos. However, without federal funding, there is not gonna be a great demand for those embryos for research purposes. Moreover, it's gonna be a very few clinics because they're gonna be such concern to make sure that consent is done right and everything, all the i's are dotted and t's are crossed, so somebody from -- who has five embryos left over from their cycles ain't gonna be able to just walk in to George Daley's lab and say, here's some embryos for you.
BOYERWell, I guess I...
TIPTONThe process is gonna have to be very, very careful.
BOYERI guess I'd like to ask a couple of things about that. I mean, we're having this discussion, this very compelling and interesting discussion, sort of based on the premise, the foundational assertion, that human embryonic stem cell research, above all else, holds such great, undisputed, unchallengeable promise and potential and that that has been somehow cut off. And that -- I mean, it's almost as if the argument is about -- and I think this true of our politics, too, it's almost as if the argument is about the argument itself, rather than the actual potential of the science.
BOYERAbout which I would say one other thing, by the way. To the degree that it is a political argument, again, I go back to the underlying problem, which is that Congressional action, which could have been addressed last year and it could be again addressed next year. I mean...
TIPTONYou know, I don't think that's the premise at all. I think the premise is the people suffering from these debilitating conditions and diseases want American scientists to have the freedom to use the materials that they think are gonna be best. I don't think we are concerned whether that the cures come from embryonic or adult stem cells or some other source.
BOYERI guess what I'm saying is that I just don't hear the argument being made as forcefully and -- regarding, for example, induced pluripotent stem cell.
TIPTONThat's 'cause there's no need for that argument 'cause nobody's trying to stop that research.
DESTROWell, but nobody is trying to stop the research on embryonic stem cells, either. That's going on. The state of California passed a huge, you know, bond issue on, you know, for funding stem cell research. There's all kinds of private research going on. So there's nothing -- and even, as Dr. Daley pointed out, this is certainly, administratively, horrendously inconvenient. You know, but the fact of the matter is that nobody's is gonna stop him from doing embryonic stem cell research. The freedom is still there. The question is, does that freedom require federal funding?
DESTROAnd as a taxpayer, you would...
BOYERYeah, I would argue that that's a specious argument. The fact is that the way basic biomedical research is conducted in this country is tremendously dependent on sources of federal funding. NIH grants are the lifeblood of American biomedical research. It is the reason why we have the most highly developed biomedical research enterprise, the most successful biotechnology industry and have served as a foundation for the pharmaceutical industry for decades. It is, I think, a specious argument to say that because there is the freedom to obtain private funding, that somehow the research isn't impacted.
BOYERThe research slows to a molasses-like state because of the absence of federal engagement. And the political (unintelligible) ...
REHMAll right. Now, that's in -- excuse me, what's in this country. What happens abroad, Sean?
BOYERWell, we are also the leaders internationally scientifically. And there are many countries that looked to the United States for guidance and for leadership. There have been a few pockets of rather enlightened communities that have seen the absence of engagement of our government as an opportunity for their own investments. And so countries like Singapore, Sweden have continued to invest. However, these are tiny communities of researchers relative to the enormous potential that's represented by American biomedical.
REHMAll right, Sean.
TIPTONWell, and I do think this has a chilling effect. I mean, for 60 years, the United States has attracted the best minds in the world on biomedical research. That is at risk with these kind of policies, not to mention the economic impact. You know, when we've got an immediate jobs problem with labs like Dr. Daley's, these people who have ramped up, who have hired technicians and scientists to work on federal grants on embryonic stem cell research, those jobs are now in danger.
REHMNow, here's an email from Matt, who says, "I know I've heard at least one story of a top biologist moving his entire research lab to Toronto, Canada, as the rules for stem cell research there are much more clear and less obstructive to his work. Are we losing many such top researchers to other countries because of our tough restrictions?" Peter Boyer.
BOYERI -- the answer is no, we're not. And again, I would just -- I would go back once again to, I mean, this has been a -- an ongoing political debate for a decade now. And much of the scientific community blamed what Sean refers to as these restrictive policies and associated them with what they called the anti-scientific bent of the George W. Bush administration. Their response was rallying behind a new candidate for president of the United States, Barack Obama, who in fact was elected and who in fact sought to overturn that policy. Again, it is not a matter of executive order, as we learn.
BOYERThere is an actual law that bears upon this that a Democratic Congress, completely controlled by Democrats in both Houses, completely sympathetic to the agenda of a new popularly elected president, had a chance to address and did not do so. Why? Because the reason they did this is because it was politically risky, and the reason it's politically risky is it is not a settled (unintelligible). That's the issue.
REHMPeter Boyer, he's staff writer for The New Yorker. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's go to Toledo, Ohio. Good morning, Paul.
PAULGood morning, Diane. How are you today?
REHMFine, thank you.
PAULIt's an interesting subject. Thank you for having me on. A couple of comments were made earlier. One that's this is a debate, basically, that hinges on whether embryos are property or people. And I believe the same commentator commented that allowing embryonic stem cell research would be tantamount to taking a person on death row and forcibly experimenting on them. And I think that's -- well, to not to be impolite, but I think that's a bit of a twist on the truth.
PAULMy understanding is that these embryos are donated willingly by the people, whether you wanna call them the parents or the owners, either as a distinction without a difference, because you can do that already with even your children, you can submit them to certain medical testing provided that it's been properly vetted. Also, if it was to be related to a person on death row, that person could also volunteer to be a member of an experimental group for all sorts of medical testing, so I don't see where that really is the hinge in this issue. I -- again, someone commented earlier that this is purely hinged on emotion and of course, there is this federal law, I'm not denying that, but really, this boils down to an emotional argument that is not really relevant to whether property or people are involved.
REHMAll right, sir. Thanks for your call. Robert Destro.
DESTROWell, yes, I did make the comment and of course, these cells are valuable and nobody denies that, in terms of how they work because they are in fact human and they come from a human organism. And for people who take the position that the caller just referred to as emotional is like, look, human rights come from somewhere. They come from your human nature. That human nature comes -- is present in the embryo. That's the reason for the Wicker-Dickey Amendment. And so, you know, that's where this fight is. It has nothing to do with being anti-scientific, it has to do with research ethics. And much of the debate, from my perspective, it seems to me that the -- we do -- there is an emotional factor here, but all this weight is being given to embryonic stem cell research as almost a symbolic gesture toward reproductive rights.
REHMSean Tipton, last word.
TIPTONWell, Mr. Boyer alluded a couple of times to the fact that Congress did not changed Dickey-Wicker, it's 'cause they didn't think they needed to. Under three presidents, under Clinton, Bush and Obama, the law was clearly interpreted as allowing research on tissue that had been derived from embryos and that the ban was on funding research that would destroy or harm them. So there is no need to. I would also point out that under two Congresses, including a Republican controlled Congress, Congress passed pro-embryonic stem cell research, so I think it's clear where Congress has come down on this and I think the judge just misinterpreted it.
REHMSean Tipton, coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, Robert Destro, professor of law at The Catholic University of America, Dr. George Daley, director of the Stem Cell Transplantation Program at Children's Hospital in Boston, Peter Boyer, staff writer at The New Yorker. I wonder whether you, Robert Destro, see a legal challenge to what's been done.
DESTROWell, I think there's gonna be -- there's certainly gonna be an appeal.
REHMTons. Tons of appeals.
REHMAll right. We'll leave it at that. Thanks for being with us. I'm Diane Rehm.
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