Maryland must explore stem cells' promise

April 04, 2005|By John Gearhart

OVERWHELMING scientific opinion supports embryonic stem cell research, and many believe it has the potential to revolutionize medicine.

The American Medical Association and the National Academy of Sciences have endorsed embryonic stem cell research, and a statewide survey conducted by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies in February determined that 78 percent of Marylanders support stem cell research using surplus embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics.

Adult stem cells are not equivalent to embryonic stem cells. Over the past several years, claims have been made, chiefly by nonscientists, that stem cells isolated from adult tissues will do all that embryonic stem cells can do, and therefore there is no need for embryonic stem cell research.

Adult stem cells from bone marrow are used extensively in medical treatments for blood-related diseases. But leading scientific and medical organizations have concluded that claims by proponents of adult stem cell research are overstated.

Research and clinical efficacy are the only means of validating whether stem cell-mediated therapies will materialize for such conditions as diabetes, Parkinson's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease, spinal cord injury, liver disease, cancer, heart disease and stroke.

In legislation under consideration in the Maryland General Assembly, stem cell research would be conducted with state funding, using stem cells derived from surplus in vitro fertilization embryos - a safe, widely accepted medical procedure. With in vitro fertilization, more embryos are created than are used to produce babies. Hundreds of thousands of these surplus embryos are stored in freezers throughout the United States and eventually are discarded.

Why should Maryland become involved in an area in which the federal government historically has taken the lead? Current federal policy severely limits the scope of and funding for embryonic stem cell research. Many other countries are investing heavily in stem cell research, vigorously pursuing all aspects of this science, mostly because the benefits - economic as well as humane - are expected to be enormous. Science knows no country.

States are responding to this void (either by referendum, as in California, or legislation, as in New Jersey) because their citizens believe the federal restriction retards the development of urgently needed therapies. California has committed $3 billion to this research, and many other states are proposing substantive support for it. Those states that invest in this area and develop centers will serve as catalysts for biomedical research.

They not only will bring these therapies to the clinic but also will reap the economic benefits from intellectual property, with accompanying patents and licenses, to be garnered from fundamental discoveries in this area of human biology. Scientists will be and are being drawn to these centers, augmenting the value of the enterprise. Maryland has the fourth-largest biotechnology industry in the country. To enhance its national standing and retain its top scientists, the state should elect to benefit from this new technology. Political leadership is critical if Maryland is to reap the benefits of this research.

We live in a pluralistic society with many different cultures, religions and beliefs. We must allow ample room for the wide differences concerning the moral and ethical interpretations of the earliest stages of human development, particularly when it could mean the difference between life and death for many of our citizens.

We are ethically and morally obligated to pursue treatments for the benefit of those who suffer. Perhaps the most significant ethical issue attending stem cell research is the slow pace at which research is allowed to progress that would diminish that suffering. Therapies delayed are therapies denied.

John Gearhart, the C. Michael Armstrong professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine, is involved in stem cell research.

Columnist Steve Chapman is on vacation.

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