Stem cell politics simmer as economy boils

By Janet Simons
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette has clear priorities. She continues to promote full federal funding for embryonic stem cell research after two presidential vetoes, and she vows to reintroduce her Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act as soon as Congress reconvenes under a new president.

In August, she released a book on the subject — Sex, Science and Stem Cells: Inside the Right Wing Assault on Reason, in which she casts a liberal’s eye on the politics surrounding stem cell science.

But if she ever doubted that politics trumps science, she relearned the lesson on Oct. 8.

That’s when Denver’s congresswoman and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi scheduled a press conference at Denver Health Medical Center to discuss “the current state of health care in America, major health care accomplishments in Congress and top priorities in health care for the 111th Congress.”

In the scripted part of the news conference, reporters heard Pelosi call for “a massive infusion of funding into basic biomedical research” in order to step up progress on all biomedical research — stem cell research in particular.

“When stem cell research funding becomes the law of the land, it will be because of Diana DeGette,” Pelosi said. The speaker noted that both of DeGette’s stem cell bills had passed the Senate and the House with bipartisan support before the president vetoed them.

After Election Day, Pelosi predicted, “We’re looking at a very different alignment of the planets.”

Then DeGette took the ball, saying that, in 1990, President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich had mutually pledged to double the budget for the National Institutes of Health, and their success in that effort had enabled the Human Genome Project. That, in turn, had led to “all the early stem cell breakthroughs.”

However, under President George W. Bush, DeGette said, “the NIH budget was flattened, and it was devastating. Now we have the results of the Genome Project, and we have so many possibilities that we can’t fund.”

Members of the media took unenthusiastic notes during that part of press conference, but they were clearly itching to grill Pelosi personally about the House vote to rescue the nation’s faltering financial industry with a $700 billion bailout, which had taken place only five days earlier.

An aide had requested that the first several questions relate to health care topics, and, with uncharacteristic obedience, reporters had asked three health care questions before someone asked about the bailout.

So much for stem cells.

Virtually all of the next day’s reports were about Pelosi’s call for an additional $150 billion stimulus package — although several news outlets did note that the speaker made the comments after touring a Denver hospital.

A few days later, when asked about the lack of coverage on her favorite topic, DeGette remained upbeat.

“I was happy that Speaker Pelosi could join me in highlighting an important issue — health care — to this and the next Congress,” she said. “I’m happy with the coverage, given the current news cycle.”

Support for embryonic stem cell research an increasingly partisan issue

During the stem cell portion of the news conference, Pelosi and DeGette made numerous references to the bipartisan support that helped give House and Senate majorities to both versions of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act. They also asserted that only a Democratic victory in November would ensure its success.

That’s because — as DeGette makes clear in her book — stem cell research involving embryonic stem cells is a heavily partisan issue.

To quote her introduction, “the politicization of science by the Republicans and the religious right was at its most insidious over any issue relating to human reproduction.”

In other words, DeGette’s legislation would have funded research on stem cell lines obtained from discarded human embryos originally created for fertility treatments — and most Republican members of Congress oppose that.

The Republican Party platform clearly states the GOP’s opposition to the use of embryonic stem cells, and the straight party-line votes of Colorado’s congressional delegation on both versions of DeGette’s bill underscore the point.

Nevertheless, DeGette has a loyal Republican co-sponsor for her bill in Congressman James Ramstad, of Minnesota, who helped round up 36 more Republican votes in the House. (That’s compared to 160 Republicans who voted “no” and four who didn’t vote.)

And in the Senate, presidential nominee John McCain earned his maverick label in part by consistently voting in favor of DeGette’s legislation.

In a separate interview, the congresswoman expressed concern that Republican support would crumble if McCain wins the presidency.

“Senator McCain voted both for stem cell research and to override the veto,” DeGette said. “But he isn’t about to dramatically support increases in funding for stem cell research.

“Sarah Palin has said all embryonic cell research should be banned, and she says she’ll be the one in charge (in a Republican administration). She says that’s going to be her job.”

Republican 5th Congressional District U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn explained his “no” vote on the 2008 bill in a statement.

“Congressman Lamborn believes human life begins at conception, also known as fertilization, and ends at natural death,” said Lamborn’s release. “He has worked tirelessly defending the right to life of the unborn and those facing euthanasia. He opposes embryonic stem cell research that destroys human embryos, as well as human cloning. On the positive side, he supports adult stem cell research because it is not destructive of human life and has shown much more success and promise for medical progress.”

Retiring Republican Sen. Wayne Allard offered his views on the possibilities of adult stem cell research in a statement he released after the vote on DeGette’s first stem cell bill in 2006.

“As a doctor of veterinary medicine, I have a special appreciation for scientific research that produces results and cures diseases,” he said. “Research using adult stem cells has produced results that have the potential to cure numerous diseases, and we should continue exploring the possibilities of that research.”

Allard said he believes research done using adult stem cells, from sources such as cord blood, have produced results that warrant the future use of taxpayer dollars, and noted that he’s “very supportive of this type of stem cell research.”

But DeGette doesn’t believe politicians should be setting research priorities.

“I’m smart, but I don’t think it’s my job to tell researchers which kind of stem cells to use,” she said at the Denver Health press conference. “But now politicians are telling researchers what to do. And that’s wrong.”

Her view is bolstered by one of her most vocal supporters, University of Colorado School of Medicine professor Curt Freed. In 1988, Freed participated in the first U.S. transplant of human fetal dopamine cells into a patient with Parkinson’s disease.

“Embryonic stem cells are the only truly universal cells,” Freed said in an interview. “Bone marrow cells and their equivalent blood cells from umbilical cords are already precisely defined.”

Freed said frozen human embryos from fertility treatments are discarded by the hundreds of thousands, and that, “It is my opinion that the use of a few of these embryos to derive stem cells is a better option than throwing them away.”

Back to the economy … and congressional opponents

Not all arguments against government funding of embryonic stem cell research are made on ethical grounds, however.

DeGette’s Denver congressional district is probably the safest Democratic seat in the state, and there’s little doubt that she’ll be returning to Washington for her seventh term in January.

She does, however, have two opponents in the race for Colorado’s 1st Congressional District: Republican Party nominee George Lilly and Libertarian Party nominee Martin L. Buchanan.

One might think that two people engaged in such a quixotic venture would represent opposite ends of some spectrum or another.

One would be wrong, at least when it comes to federal funding for stem cell research. Both believe the enterprise should be left to the free market.

Libertarian Buchanan contends that 70 percent of medical research already is privately funded, “and we seem to have plenty of it.”

He says the current crisis in the economy only underscores the need for an end to federal funding for biomedical research.

And Lilly?

“I want to see the private sector do it,” he said. “It’s not the government’s business to be involved in the business of medical research.”

The two differ on the ethical issue, however. Buchanan supports embryonic stem cell research — he just doesn’t want the government to pay for it.

Lilly says that although he doesn’t personally approve of research that uses embryonic stem cells, “I don’t think we need stem cell police out there.”

That’s why he’s particularly heartened by recent research at Harvard University that reportedly generates cells that function like embryonic stem cells but are derived from adult cells.

“This is great!” Lilly said. “Harvard has the largest endowment of any university, so they’re in a position to do the research without any help from the government.”

But that argument is “specious,” says B.D. Colen, senior communications officer for university science at Harvard University, in Boston, because the constant pressure to raise money saps talent and energy from scientific pursuit.

Colen said Douglas Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, estimates that he spends a third of his time raising money.

“Imagine what he could do if he spent all that time on science,” Colen said. He added that scientists at Harvard believe cuts in federal funding for the National Institutes of Health have set back U.S. stem cell research by about 10 years.