Friday, August 25, 2006

The Inefficiency of the Embryonic Stem Cell Ban

There's an article appearing in the most recent edition of Forbes that's worth mentioning. It deals with embryonic stem cell research, specifically how it has been funded thus far in the US.

Opponents of the research like to claim that private funds are still allowed to go into the research, and therefore that's enough to keep it going.

In a sense, this is true. The subtitle of the Forbes article, however, puts a big qualifier on the end of that claim: "Billionaire cash has kept embryonic stem-cell research alive--just barely."

Just barely is right, and there's no telling whether simply keeping the research alive is going to be enough to eventually translate into making the research viable in humans.

As the Forbes article points out, no major medical treatment has ever been developed without significant federal government funding. And while some federal funding has gone toward embryonic stem cell research to date, it's highly questionable whether it's a significant amount.

Every year the National Institutes of Health (NIH) pumps $20 billion into the biotech field for research. Of that total, 10 percent goes toward stem cell research. Out of that 10 percent, only 1/5 goes toward embryonic stem cell research.

In other words, a paltry two-tenths of a percent of the NIH research budget currently goes toward embryonic stem cell research, in spite of the fact that researchers agree it holds the most promise for curing a wide array of medical ailments.

This, however, is really just half the story. These funding restrictions also take a negative toll on researchers in the biotech field -- that is, those willing to take a chance on embryonic stem cell research. As the Forbes piece notes, "Without the NIH imprimatur, some young scientists are reluctant to stake their careers on embryonic stem cells."

But even for those who are willing to risk the inconsistency of private funding to head into the embryonic stem cell field, there's always a fear that lines will be crossed between their research studies that can accept federal funding and their embryonic stem cell research that cannot.

This hesitancy, in addition to the general lack of funds, has allowed European and Asian countries to forge ahead in the research, leaving the US behind. According to Roger Ashby, who runs a small firm in NY that funds stem cell studies abroad called StemCell Ventures, "In America scientists are always looking over their shoulders and wondering if they are breaking a law."

As a result, the embryonic stem cell research in the US has become highly inefficient -- which, ironically, is often the charge people make when the government gets involved in ventures. Such is not the case in the risky biotech market, however, where the consistency of public funds acts as a leveling force.

Due to the federal funding restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, scientists across the country have been forced to build two separate labs to ensure they are not breaking the law with their research.

We're also seeing this happen right here in Wisconsin. The new Institutes of Discovery in Madison is being forced to split into two buildings -- one that will house privately-funded research and one that will support publicly-funded research.

Dividing research like this has a severe impact on the efficiency of the research. According to Harvard University researcher Douglas Melton, half of his budget for embryonic stem cell research "goes to redundant lab gear and overhead he wouldn't need if it weren't for the NIH rules against stem-cell funding." That is significant.

Echoing this sentiment is Johns Hopkins researcher Douglas Kerr, whose team of scientists made headlines back in June when it found a way to re-grow the circuitry necessary to move a muscle, thereby allowing rats suffering from paralysis to walk again.

Kerr says that with proper government funding, a treatment could be ready for human trials in five years. As it stands, though, it will be much longer because of the funding restrictions imposed by President Bush and the GOP-controlled Congress, including Mark Green.

"I am stuck. It is amazingly frustrating," Kerr explains. "All I see are paralyzed patients. They have been following this work and I have to tell them I cannot do the experiments."

The Forbes article also discusses the significant state commitment to embryonic stem cell research that was recently made in California. And researchers are flocking to California biotech labs because of it. The article mentions that similar funding commitments have been discussed in a number of other states, including Wisconsin.

Would they continue to be discussed if Mark Green is elected this November, or will he force Wisconsin biotech labs to toil under the same type of inefficiencies he voted for while in Congress?

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