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October 23, 2004
Column #1,208

                    The Low Down on the Stem Cell Debate

     Vice Presidential Nominee John Edwards said, "If we do the work that we can
do in this country, the work that we will do when John Kerry is president, people like
Christopher Reeve are going to walk, get up out that wheelchair and walk again."

     One person outraged by that comment was Dr. Charles Krauthammer, a Pulitzer
Prize-winning columnist, who is confined to a wheelchair due to a spinal cord injury
he suffered as a medical student at age 22:

     "In my 25 years in Washington, I have never seen a more loathsome display of demagoguery. Hope is good. False hope is bad. Deliberately, for personal gain, raising false hope in the catastrophically afflicted is despicable...

     "The inability of the human spinal cord to regenerate is one of the great mysteries of biology. The answer is not remotely around the corner. It could take a generation to unravel. To imply, as Edward did, that it is imminent if only you elect the right politicians is scandalous."

     Last weekend Christopher Reeve, who starred in four Superman movies, but was
paralyzed in a riding accident, died of a heart attack at age 52.  He was a gallant spokesman for embryonic stem cell research. He will be missed.

     However, as Dr. David Prentice of the Family Research Council, put it, Reeve "was an effective champion for an ineffective product."

     Since embryonic stem cells were isolated and cultured in 1998, the promise of miracle cures for devastating diseases have collided with reality.  "After two decades of research, embryonic stem cells have not helped a single human being," asserts an ad appearing in "USA Today" by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "And they come with a hefty price tag: they are only obtained by destroying a living human embryo.

     "Meanwhile, adult stem cells have helped thousands of people including patients with Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injury, sickle-cell anemia, heart damage...And these stem cells are readily available, found in bone marrow, umbilical cord blood, skin, fat..."    
     For example, Dr. Richard Burt of Northwestern's School of Medicine, has successfully treated 100 patients for a variety of "auto immune" diseases in which one's immune system attacks itself such as multiple sclerosis and lupus.
     First, adult stem cells are taken from the patient's blood. Then chemotherapy is used to kill all defective immune cells. The stem cells are then injected back into the blood stream, which become healthy immune cells. Of 25 patients with multiple sclerosis, all got better and "two-thirds have had no remissions," Dr. Burt reports.
     He has used this same strategy to cure patients of scleroderma (a skin disease), Crohn's Disease, which destroys the intestinal system, Vasculitis, Wegener's Disease
(inflammation of blood vessels), Behcets, Sjogrens (involving brains and lung), and a half dozen others.
     In an August 7 radio address, John Kerry referred four times to the "ban" on embryonic stem cell research allegedly imposed by President Bush. That is a blatant lie. 
     George W. Bush is the first president to approve federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, and $22 million of grants have been made. Also, the National Institute of Health has made 22 "lines of stem cells" available. Dr. Leon Kass, head of the President's Council on Bioethics, says there are 3,500 shipments of stem cells available for researchers.
     Third, there is no ban on privately funded research. Christopher Reeve's foundation has made $40 million available. Harvard is conducting its own studies. California voters will decide whether to approve a $3 billion bond for yet more research.
     Yet there are two moral questions involved. Why shouldn't more public research money be invested in adult stem cell research which has already been proven effective than in embryonic stem cells where the possibilities are only theoretical? 
     A deeper moral issue is whether it is ethical to kill human embryos to advance research. Advocates for doing so note that fertility clinics have 400,000 frozen embryos which will be discarded, if they are not used for research. However a Rand study reveals that only 11,000 of them are designated by parents for possible research which is not enough to treat a major disease.
     Already the Biotechnology Industry Organization says it will be "essential" to permit widespread human cloning (called therapeutic cloning) involving thousands of women in the mass production of human lives that are to be exploited and destroyed to realize the promise of embryonic stem cell research. Many studies also say the cloned embryo has to be placed in a womb to develop it past the embryonic stage to obtain usable cells.
     This is morally abhorrent - and unnecessary.

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