The candidates on stem cell research

That article in “Nature” we linked to yesterday, based on a questionnaire on the candidates’ views about scientific issues, also gives their positions on stem cell research. Here Obama explains why he still believes in harvesting unwanted unborn children for their stem cells even though new techniques are making it no longer necessary, something McCain recognizes:

Would you lift President Bush’s ban on federal funding for research on human embryonic stem-cell lines derived after 9 August 2001? Under what conditions do you find it acceptable to create a human embryonic stem-cell line?

Obama: Stem-cell research holds the promise of improving our lives in at least three ways — by substituting normal cells for damaged cells to treat diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, spinal-cord injury, heart failure and other disorders; by providing scientists with safe and convenient models of disease for drug development; and by helping to understand fundamental aspects of normal development and cell dysfunction.

For these reasons, I strongly support expanding research on stem cells. I believe that the restrictions that President Bush has placed on the funding of human embryonic stem-cell research have handcuffed our scientists and hindered our ability to compete with other nations. As president, I will lift the current administration’s ban on federal funding of research on embryonic stem-cell lines created after 9 August 2001 through executive order, and I will ensure that all research on stem cells is conducted ethically and with rigorous oversight.

I recognize that some people object to government support of research that requires cells to be harvested from human embryos. However, hundreds of thousands of embryos stored in the United States in in vitro fertilization clinics will not be used for reproductive purposes, and will eventually be destroyed. I believe that it is ethical to use these extra embryos for research that could save lives when they are freely donated for that express purpose.

I am also aware that there have been suggestions that human stem cells of various types, derived from sources other than embryos, make the use of embryonic stem cells unnecessary. I don’t agree. While adult stem cells, such as those harvested from blood or bone marrow, are already used for treatment of some diseases, they do not have the versatility of embryonic stem cells and cannot replace them. Recent discoveries indicate that adult skin cells can be reprogrammed to behave like stem cells; these are exciting findings that might in the future lead to an alternate source of highly versatile stem cells. However, embryonic stem cells remain the ‘gold standard’, and studies of all types of stem cells should continue in parallel for the foreseeable future.

Rather than restrict the funding of such research, I favour responsible oversight of it, in accordance with recent reports from the National Research Council (NRC). Recommendations from the NRC reports are already being followed by institutions that conduct human embryonic stem-cell research with funds from a variety of sources. An expanded, federally supported stem-cell research programme will encourage talented US scientists to engage in this important new field, will allow more effective oversight, and will signal to other countries our commitment to compete in this exciting area of medical research.

McCain’s stance on embryonic stem-cell research has been the subject of much speculation among researchers. He has voted twice before to lift President Bush’s funding restrictions on such work, but his running mate Sarah Palin opposes the work. His public position is perhaps best summarized in his response to questionnaires from advocacy groups such as Research!America last year and ScienceDebate2008 this year: “While I support federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, I believe clear lines should be drawn that reflect a refusal to sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for the sake of scientific progress. Moreover, I believe that recent scientific breakthroughs raise the hope that one day this debate will be rendered academic. I also support funding for other research programmes, including amniotic fluid and adult stem-cell research which hold much scientific promise and do not involve the use of embryos. I oppose the intentional creation of human embryos for research purposes and I voted to ban the practice of ‘fetal farming’, making it a federal crime for researchers to use cells or fetal tissue from an embryo created for research purposes.”

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