Stem stell researcher visits U to discuss role of politics in studies

by Matthew Gruchow

Stem cell research is a major issue in the presidential election, but politics have muddled the public’s understanding of the issue, a stem cell expert said Thursday at the Mayo Building.

Bruce Conklin, a national expert on stem cell research from the University of California-San Francisco, said stem cell research is suffering from the limitations President George W. Bush has put on it.

“I’m disappointed that politicians aren’t up to speed on how potent the argument could be,” Conklin said.

Stem cells are harvested from fertilized eggs and can be used to make many different tissues in the human body.

Researchers hope that if Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry is elected, he will increase federal funds for stem cell research, Conklin said.

Embryonic stem cell research is being unjustly connected to the abortion debate, Conklin said. Scientists do not use aborted fetuses, but rather fertilized eggs that were going to be destroyed at fertility clinics, he said.

These eggs were never going to be implanted in women, he said.

“This has nothing to do with abortion,” Conklin said. “Human embryonic stem cells are not connected with the abortion issue. That’s the big issue.”

Opponents link stem cell research to abortion because day-old embryos are destroyed when stem cells are extracted.

In August 2001, Bush limited federal funding to study 78 embryonic stem cell lines.

Patients donate the fertilized eggs and sign a consent form allowing research, Conklin said.

Many researchers believe stem cells might help treat many diseases, including neurological disorders and diabetes. Government officials and the public must work quickly to relax research restrictions, he said.

“The urgency of this issue is so important,” Conklin said. “Embryonic stem cell research fulfills the ethical obligation to alleviate human suffering.”

Conklin said the Bush administration’s research limits are helping some large biomedical corporations that control prices and access to some stem cell samples, he said.

Conklin said he wants to be able to study thousands of stem cell lines and distribute them freely, he said.

Israel, Sweden, Russia, China and other countries are doing stem cell research with different research restrictions, Conklin said.

First-year medical student Mai Vang listened to Conklin’s speech because stem cell research will become increasingly important for treating diseases, she said.

“It’s going to be the cutting edge of technology,” Vang said. “Hopefully, if it does what it’s supposed to, it may be able to cure diseases that right now people don’t have a lot of hope for.”

Bush should consider the lives of those battling diseases before placing limits on stem cell research, Vang said.

“The stance that Bush has taken isn’t really protecting life,” she said.