Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Stem Cells can be 21st Century Penicillin

Positioning Washington as an important player in the national debate over embryonic stem cell research, Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Rep. Shay Schual-Berke introduced legislation recently that would authorize this pioneering science.

The timing for this potential legislation could not be better. Stem cells hold the promise of leading to treatments and cures for catastrophic diseases that plague more than 100 million Americans, including diabetes, Parkinson's, cancer, Alzheimer's, spinal cord injury and multiple sclerosis. Moreover, the state is primed for such cutting edge science because it is home to several large research institutions and a burgeoning biomedical industry.

Unfortunately, for too long, this groundbreaking research has been tremendously hampered. Indeed, pro-embryonic stem cell bills have been introduced twice before -- to no end.
Opponents, including conservative lawmakers and religious leaders, cited sanctity-of-life issues and characterized the process, called Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer, as reproductive human cloning.

They could not be more wrong; SCNT is about saving lives and the betterment of humanity, plain and simple. We are doing a great injustice to humanity and the future if we allow ourselves to be frightened by the unknown and political and religious agendas.

Imagine what our world would be like if Alexander Fleming, John Sheehan and Andrew Moyer had not invented penicillin from mold. Today, illnesses from pneumonia and strep throat to meningitis and rheumatic fever are easily treated, but in the days before this miracle drug was developed, thousands of people died each week, month and year from those diseases.

Stem cells have the potential of being the penicillin of the 21st century. Yet, despite the support of three former presidents, hundreds of members of Congress on both sides of the political spectrum, plus 48 Nobel laureates, and countless millions of Americans across the country, the administration announced three years ago that research on the existing stem cell lines would receive financing from the National Institutes of Health, but no new lines could be created with government monies. This decision severely limited the resources available to scientists and doctors.

Greatly exacerbating matters, President Bush's decision to limit federal funding for stem cells and to restrict the types of stem cells that can be used was recently dealt a serious blow. A study conducted by University of California-San Diego found that stem cell lines approved by the administration had been grown on mouse-feeder layers and were likely unsuitable for human research. This finding strongly points to the need for state governments, which can establish laws to supersede the federal restrictions, to move stem cell research forward.

Already, a number of states are taking up the challenge to clear the path for scientists to conduct life-saving biomedical discoveries through stem cell research. In California, voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 71, creating a formal program to allocate $3 billion in state bonds over the next 10 years to stem cell research.

Major initiatives have been proposed also in New Jersey, Wisconsin and Connecticut, as well as many other states. Together, they represent an enormous step forward in the fight to unlock the potential of this landmark life-saving science.

With this in mind, Hadassah is sponsoring SOS: State of Stem Cells, a national advocacy effort in which thousands of our organization's members in all 50 states, including Washington, are traveling to their state capitals this month to encourage legislators to pass bills and provide funding for stem-cell research.

We understand that such scientific breakthroughs are essential to countless millions of men, women and children suffering from debilitating and deadly ailments. At the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, scientists continue to conduct research on some of the oldest stem-cell lines approved by the National Institutes of Health and are leading the way in the treatment of Parkinson's disease by using stem cells to generate dopaminergic neurons. They recently succeeded in showing that human embryonic stem cells can improve the functioning of a laboratory rat with Parkinson's disease. This is reason for hope.

This hope is something the people of California seized on by passing Proposition 71. It is something that state governments across the country should invest in today. Indeed, it is now imperative for the Washington Legislature to overwhelmingly pass the bills proposed by Kohl-Welles and Schual-Berke. Such brave action would breathe new life into the famous words of Justice Louis Brandeis, who said that the states are the "laboratories of democracy."

By: JUNE WALKER & JACQUIE BAYLEY