After Bush’s Veto, What is Next for Stem Cell Research?

First appeared in The Huffington Post For the second consecutive year, President Bush is vetoing legislation that would expand...

First appeared in The Huffington Post

For the second consecutive year, President Bush is vetoing legislation that would expand the range of human embryonic stem cell research eligible for federal funding. The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act did not represent a sea change in federal policy, but would have been an important step toward making that policy a bit less hostile toward the advancement of this incredibly promising science.
Now that it’s crystal clear that federal support is not forthcoming for at least another two years, what is next for the field of human embryonic stem cell research?

The answer is that this work must and will progress. And it will continue to be driven by the efforts of private philanthropy, ideally augmented by an infusion of state government dollars.
A brief refresher on the scientific priorities involved in this issue: the immediate scientific objective of human embryonic stem cell research is to achieve the ability to create a “disease-in-a-dish.” By observing diabetes, Parkinsonå_s and other devastating diseases at the cellular level, it is believed that researchers could test the efficacy of potential medical treatments far more accurately and efficiently. Cures are, of course, the Holy Grail, but equally important may be the “happy accidents” that often arise in the course of scientific pursuit and can result in unexpected breakthroughs.

Opponents of this work, who represent a very small minority of Americans, were handed a new rhetorical weapon with the announcement a couple of weeks ago of early-stage developments in reprogramming mouse cells. The findings are interesting, but mice aren’t people. We simply can’t wait for this research to catch up to the work on human embryonic stem cells that can — and is — being done right now in labs across the country. We can’t afford an “abstinence only” approach to human embryonic stem cell research.

In the absence of federal leadership on this issue, private philanthropy has demonstrated the ability to work with top scientific minds to establish research priorities. Free of governmental bureaucracy, private philanthropy has the nimbleness to get cutting-edge research initiatives off the ground much more quickly. This is where public money can and should come in;å_ with the groundwork already established, infusions of public money can then be strategically deployed to scale up the most promising research projects. Private-public private partnerships are the optimal drivers of this science, and facilitate the most impactful application of public funding.

The public partners in this equation will be, at least for the time being, states such as New York — lead by Governor Spitzer and Lieutenant Governor Paterson, and California, under Governor Schwarzenegger, that have taken a leadership role and earmarked significant funding for stem cell research. But the responsibility remains on organizations like the New York Stem Cell Foundation to be the catalysts that make human embryonic stem cell research happen.