Providence Journal 6/11/04

Ease stem-cell rules


Many have thought about stem-cell research this week with the ceremonies around the death of Ronald Reagan from Alzheimer's disease. Stem-cell research could lead to major advances against this scourge.

Since President Bush sharply curbed federal funding for stem-cell research, numerous Americans afflicted with serious diseases have paid a call on Congress. Their entreaties have worked: Rep. Randy Cunningham, a California Republican who describes himself as "pro-life," was swayed by a personal appeal from a child who later died. Now, 206 House members -- including several abortion foes -- have signed a letter urging Mr. Bush to allow expanded research with federal dollars.

In August 2001, the president signed an executive order saying that federal money could support work only on existing stem-cell lines. But scientists have complained that too few lines are available, and as a result, work over the past three years has moved slowly. New lines are available elsewhere -- for instance, in South Korea. But U.S. scientists cannot use federal money to study them.

The president and many others oppose using stem-cell technology to create new embryos solely for research. But the members of Congress who signed the letter hope that he will soften his stance, and at least allow use of embryos left over at fertility clinics. Many of these embryos are either frozen or discarded, since couples who go through in-vitro fertilization typically get more embryos than they need.

It is possible that most of the promise of stem-cell research could be realized with the use of adult stem cells, which are taken from bone marrow. But embryonic stem cells appear more powerful and flexible, and their potential should be thoroughly investigated.

Last month, former First Lady Nancy Reagan for the first time voiced public support for expanded stem-cell research. Mr. Bush and other fellow conservatives should listen to her plea.

Two states are not waiting for the president to come around. California and New Jersey have both seen stem-cell research as so vital that they are dedicating state dollars to it. In New Jersey, Gov. James E. McGreevey recently signed a bill that establishes a state-supported research center. And private efforts are in the offing; among the most notable is the new Harvard Stem Cell Institute, announced by the university in April. Still, nothing can compete with the financial clout of a federal investment.

Stem-cell research could bring relief from dozens of devastating diseases besides Alzheimer's -- among them diabetes, Parkinson's, AIDS, leukemia and heart disease. While ethical guidelines should govern its use, such research should not be held hostage to politics.

Paid for by YES on 71: Coalition for Stem Cell Research and Cures, #1260661
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