Stem cells: The quiescent issue in US elections

Author: Paul Krzyzanowski, 09/20/12

How will Romney’s opinion change in light of papers, which describe healthy mice being created from iPS cells?

As 2012 slowly creeps on we can finally see November’s Presidential Election in the United States on the horizon marking the end of a nineteen month-long election process, which feels like an eternity compared to Canada’s last election, which lasted all of 38 days.

Yet during all this time, debates regarding stem cell research — one of the dominant themes of previous US elections — have been conspicuously absent. Would either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney change stem cell research policy, and if so, how? The public and people conducting stem cell research in the US should be considering risks of the field changing, with an eye toward embryonic stem cell research.

At Salon.com, it’s being claimed that the polarization engendered by stem cell research now remains in the past, for scientific and political reasons:

“The direction of the research has changed since the 2004 and 2008 campaigns. Nowadays research on induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) overshadows work on human embryonic stem cells. They largely do away with the need for destructive embryo research.… [Secondly,] despite the best efforts of social conservatives to use the issue as a campaign tool, Republicans have found that their party is deeply divided internally on the issue and unable to win on it.”

It’s true that 2012 is stark contrast to the time when George Bush’s restrictions on stem  cell research were enacted in 2001, as some leading Republican figures have since come out to support embryo research.

…the impact of Bush-era restrictions is only now being measured…

This shift was best demonstrated by a 2006 opinion article in the Washington Post by Bill Frist, a physician-turned-politician. In it, he promoted two main viewpoints: that hES lines should be freely generated from embryos in IVF clinics which would otherwise be destroyed; and that iPS funding ought to be increased.

Despite the past few years, the US seems to have run full circle with current President Barack Obama lifting previous restrictions on hES research in 2009. However, the impact of Bush-era restrictions is only now being measured, with some evidence showing that American stem cell researchers lost some ground. The biggest variable that stem cell researchers must consider is the possibility of a Republican presidency headed by Mitt Romney, but it’s one that may not necessarily recapitulate the last 11 years.

2001 restrictions on stem cell research hindered US discoveries and may continue to do so

Regardless of the election outcome, data now surfacing suggests that restrictive stem cell research policies aren’t complete deterrents, even when imposed by the largest funder of that research. In reality, I think most intelligent lawmakers know this well and simply engage in classical political pandering for their voting demographic. Stem cell research in the US still went on after 2001, albeit at a slower pace.

A study published earlier this year by deRouen et al. presented evidence that the US lagged  the rest of the world in the growth of stem cell related publications, building upon similar claims that surfaced in 2006. In the 2008 to 2010 period, the deRouen paper found that US authors increased their hES publication rate by about 50% while non-US authors did so by 70%, proposing that this was due to the 2001 restrictions on stem cell research set by then President Bush. In the same period, China, Australia, Spain, and Sweden were amongst non-US countries with the most dramatic increase in hES publications, with Canada essentially flat.

The slower growth of American stem cell research may continue well into the future, suggests Eli Adashi, a professor of medicine at Brown University. He claims that younger researchers  are now shying away from stem cell research due to the risk of Republican administrations will come along and eviscerate stem cell research funding.

Both sides support stem cell research, but the Republican position is at risk

Addressing the semantics of cloning is easy. Predicting what might happen with iPS cells is not.

As the incumbent, Barack Obama has a clear advantage over Mitt Romney on this issue. Stem cell research is currently relatively unhindered in the United States, and should Barack Obama win a second term in the White House, it’s perceived that stem cell research will continue unchanged.

For the research community, the major concern is that stem cell research may be regulated differently under a Republican government, though Mitt Romney’s position is generally more supportive than that of George W. Bush.

To start, Mitt Romney’s campaign site is clear and implies that he’ll continue to be against cloning human embryos, as he’s been in the past, while simultaneously being a proponent of adult stem cell research (which never really was a moral issue) and pluripotent stem cell research. He’s also been supportive of hES lines being derived from in vitro clinics. Five years ago, he wrote of his support of stem cell research to the National Review:

“When I was governor of Massachusetts … I carefully listened to all sides, and came to reject the idea that the exploration of stem cells had to come into conflict with America’s commitment to the dignity of human life.… Altered Nuclear Transfer and Direct Reprogramming [i.e. iPS cells] could produce patient-specific stem-cell lines for the study of diseases. Our government should encourage and support these scientific developments.”

Thus far, it’s pretty clear: Cloning is prohibited, nuclear transfer and iPS research are allowed.

But knowledge has advanced since 2007, and clarity regarding cloning is desperately needed. Mitt Romney has been a staunch opponent of “cloning human embryos for use in stem cell  experiments”, but these statements, combined with his support of nuclear transfer methods leaves scientists confused. In scientific jargon, “cloning” could be more accurately described as the type of cell cloning by nuclear transfer actually supported by Romney and his team. The type of cloning I presume he’s against is the concept of reproductive cloning, which has been accepted for livestock and racehorses but, when applied to humans, leads to profound ethical questions and visions of dystopic futures for society. I don’t think any responsible scientist is considering human cloning, which, in most western societies, is illegal.

Addressing the semantics of cloning is easy. Predicting what might happen with iPS cells is not.

Thus far, iPS cells have been a less controversial and more acceptable source of stem cells for conservative politicians to promote. While iPS cells have a perfect niche in the stem cell research field, Romney has specifically stated that he “cannot condone the creation of  human life for the purpose of destroying it”, which presumes that the creation of human life is a property that iPS cells do not have.

Viable mice generated from iPS cells. (Original image published in Wu et al., PLoS Biology, 2011)

How will Romney’s opinion change in light of these papers, which describe healthy mice being created from iPS cells? The authors of the PLoS Biology report claimed that iPS cell lines can create live, iPS derived mice that survive into adulthood. One iPS cell line was particularily effective: 20 out of 151 embryos yielded adult mice, which were fully composed of iPS derived cells over 90% of the time.

Scientific advances such as these put human iPS cells into the same spotlight that embryo-derived hES cells have been under since 2001. Do these discoveries now mean that in 2012 human iPS cells similarly fall under the “creation of human life” category and that they’re a target for future research prohibition? This is a critical question and researchers and the public need to know what society will do.

The biggest risk for stem cell research is political pragmatism

The demand for a firm answer from either party on their support (or not) of embryonic stem cell has become greater as we near the election date. If the Republicans were to win, I think a Mitt Romney presidency would end up restricting human embryonic stem cell research.

But my opinion isn’t based on any hints of Mitt Romney’s ideological slant, as my perception of him is that he’s a pragmatist that works for his electorate. While Governor of Massachusetts, he was a supporter of stem cell research and industry – a smart position, considering the state is, home to Advanced Cell Technologies, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, and many other organizations (and voters) in the Boston area. He likely understands that supporting stem cell research is an absolute requirement for American competitiveness in the field.

However, as a Presidential candidate and representative on a federal level, Romney will have to consider all the other states, many of which are much more conservative than Massachusetts. If the administration changes next year and if the US returns to a more restricted environment for stem cell research, it won’t be a political flip-flop on Romney’s part but a reflection of the political party leading the United States. Fundamentally, the new developments in iPS research clash with Republican values and it’s time for stem cells to re-enter the political limelight.

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Paul Krzyzanowski

Paul is a computational biologist and writer living in Toronto. He's been a contributor to Signals for three years, writing articles for the general public about how biotechnology and biomedical research can be used to solve pressing medical problems. Alongside Paul's experience in computational biology,
 bioinformatics, and molecular genetics, he's interested in how academic research develops into real world, commercial technology, and what's needed for the Canadian biotech industry needs to grow. Paul is currently a Post-doctoral Fellow at the Ontario Institute of Cancer Research. Prior to joining the OICR, he worked at the Ottawa Hospital Research 
Institute and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Ottawa, specializing in computational biology. And finally, Paul earned an H.B.Sc. from the University of Toronto a long time ago. Paul's blog can be read at www.checkmatescientist.net
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8 Responses

  1. Paul Knoepfler says:

    Thanks, Paul, for this really well-written, timely article.

    Here in the U.S. we are very curious, within the science community, worried to see how the election goes. Obama has been supportive of research, but I wish he were more so. Still he’s been pretty solid.

    Most stem cell researchers, as least as best as I can gauge from direct contacts and via my blog (http://www.ipscell.com ) are hoping Obama wins as they view Romney as hard to peg as a potential President in terms of how supportive he would be not just of stem cell research, but of science more generally.

    Of course there is a distinction between what Romney personally believes and how he might govern as President with potential strong influence by ideological extremists at his back, but only the latter really matters practically speaking.

    It is surprising how stem cells have not entered the Obama:Romney dynamic and campaign. People should be assured that the opponents of ES cell research have been and continue to be very active.
    Paul

    • Paul Krzyzanowski says:

      Thanks Paul, for pointing out that other researchers have had difficulties forecasting the effects of a potential Republican win.

      My guess is that it would shift away from more exploratory research to work that’s more practically applicable, can be commercialized, creates jobs, etc. It’s a classic direction for policy makers on the right end of the political spectrum, which tends to be more fiscally conservative.

      Lastly, I just want to add that I’ll be following up with another post that further explores the iPS issue I introduced in the article. It should be up in the next week or two.

      Thanks for the feedback!
      Paul

  2. Paul Knoepfler says:

    I would also point out that researchers have been creating mice from iPS cells for many years now. The jump to the notion of creating humans from human iPS cells based on mouse work is astronomical. I think for Republicans the conception part is key, but I’m not a Republican so I can’t speak for them.
    Paul

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