Privatizing stem cells

President George W. Bush announced his stem cell research policy last month, but researchers and investers have recently begun to take a stand against Bush’s shortsighted decision. Protesting the scientifically poor policy, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur will withhold $60 million of a $150 million donation being made to Stanford University’s biomedical research programs. Also, a Harvard biologist has made arrangements to secure embryos from private sources in order to curtail Bush’s restrictions on federally funded research. These are the first defiant reactions to Bush’s plan, and they will surely be followed as more scientifically-minded individuals across the country find other means to conduct promising stem cell research.

In an essay published last Friday in The New York Times, James H. Clark, founder of high-tech companies including Netscape, discussed many of the fundamental problems the United States will face under Bush’s stem cell decision. Because research will be pushed abroad to countries with fewer restrictions, the United States will fall behind in the arenas of biotechnology and medical research. With Bush’s guidelines set to hinder the development of stem cell research, Clark also states that private investors like himself will not pick up the slack. However, Clark’s decision to suspend his donation will punish the wrong people. He should not be so quick to penalize Stanford when it is the president he is dissatisfied with. With fewer limitations on privately funded research, donations like Clark’s will be the United States’ only stronghold against the imminent loss of researchers to Europe.

In addition to Clark’s dissatisfaction with the president’s policy, Harvard professor Douglas Melton is finding ways to work around the limits of federally funded research. By obtaining deals with private sources such as Boston IVF, Harvard will be able to procure embryos, extract the stem cells and make them available to other researchers. In this case, the patients will decide whether or not to donate their surplus embryos to the university. Partnerships of this kind between research facilities and in vitro fertilization clinics will undoubtedly become more common. Although this provides a source of much needed embryos, scientists will still need the funds from donors like Clark to continue their work.

Not only are the embryos temperamental due to the trial and error nature of the research, but the 64 stem cell lines Bush promised would be available to American scientists are turning out to be difficult to get and at times, not suitable for scientific use. With these technical factors in mind, as well as the difficulty of setting up private partnerships, Bush should revisit the issue and consider how his compromise is less viable than he promised.