Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Adult Stem Cell Researcher Calls the Kettle Black

There was an interesting Crossroads section in the Journal-Sentinel over the weekend concerning embryonic stem cell research.

Perhaps the most interesting were two columns by scientists.

Jean Peduzzi-Nelson, who argues against embryonic stem cell research, is described as "an associate professor in the department of anatomy and cell biology" at Wayne State University School of Medicine. Tenneille Ludwig, who argues for embryonic stem cell research, is described as "a stem cell scientist at the University of Wisconsin - Madison and an affiliate of the WiCell Research Institute."

Peduzzi-Nelson attempts to make the case that there are too many question marks surrounding the viability of embryonic stem cell research, and therefore adult stem cell research is the clearer route to go.

In an attempt to explain away all of the excitement about embryonic stem cell research in the scientific community around the world, Peduzzi-Nelson says the following: "The 'great promise' of embryonic cells is often stated by scientists that either hold key patents or are strongly supported by biotech companies pursuing embryonic cells commercially."

Peduzzi-Nelson isn't the first to make the argument that embryonic stem cell research is being fueled primarily by financial greed -- conservative opponents of the research have been making that same unsubstantiated claim for years.

But what makes Peduzzi-Nelson's line so astounding is that she herself is a stem cell scientist. It just turns out that her research uses adult stem cells, not embryonic stem cells -- although you wouldn't know that by reading her JS column.

Since Peduzzi-Nelson argues that embryonic stem cell research is fueled by the desire for money, it's enlightening to examine exactly what's at stake for her research if federal funding restrictions on embryonic stem cell research are lifted.

In 2005, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funneled $2 billion in federal funds into stem cell research in the US. Out of that total, 20 percent, or $400 million, went to embryonic stem cell research. The other 80 percent, or $1.6 billion, went to other forms of stem cell research, such as the kind Peduzzi-Nelson undertakes.

The reason embryonic stem cell research gets so little from the NIH is due to the federal restrictions placed on it by President Bush and the GOP-controlled Congress.

Embryonic stem cell researchers can only access the NIH money if their research uses the 20 lines specified by the Bush Administration in 2001. Those who are doing research on newly developed lines, which is where much of the promise lies, need not apply.

Peduzzi-Nelson and other adult stem cell researchers, on the other hand, can access the NIH funding with any research project they want.

If the federal restrictions are lifted, more grant applications for embryonic stem cell research would be filed, thereby putting Peduzzi-Nelson and other adult stem cell researchers into more stringent competition for funds.

This, to say the least, puts a huge qualifier on Peduzzi-Nelson's already unsubstantiated claim about embryonic stem cell research being fueled by financial greed.

In the end, though, what's most troubling about Peduzzi-Nelson's column is that she pits adult stem cell research and embryonic stem cell research in a struggle against each other. In reality, the two are very separate avenues of research, in spite of the fact that they share the tag line of "stem cell research."

As Tenneille Ludwig points out in his piece, when it comes to adult stem cell research and embryonic stem cell research, "an honest scientist would never equate the two."

Peduzzi-Nelson is right that adult stem cell research holds a lot of promise and should be a research avenue that's continued into the future. No one is arguing that it shouldn't, and that includes embryonic stem cell scientists.

Peduzzi-Nelson is also right that embryonic stem cell research has a ways to go before it's viable in humans. And that's all the more reason to lift funding restrictions on it now.

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