Embryonic Stem Cell Research – Back in the Center of Policy Debate

October 12, 2010

For nearly a decade, the subject of embryonic stem cell research has been in the headlines. Harris poll results released over the weekend indicate that almost three quarters of adults surveyed are in favor of using embryonic stem cells left over from in vitro fertilization procedures to search for potential prevention or treatment of diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and other conditions. These poll results remain consistent with a similar survey released in 2005.

So what are embryonic stem cells, what role do they play in cancer and disease research, and what is the status of the policy?

Human embryonic stem cells come from an egg that has been fertilized in a lab as part of the in vitro fertilization (IVF) process for couples that struggle with infertility. When this process is completed, there are often excess embryos that will never be used for reproductive purposes and are discarded. Instead, these embryos can be donated for scientific research, which is a choice that many couples make.

Embryonic stem (ES) cells come from a microscopic ball of cells called a blastocyst — or, an embryo that is just a few days old. This ball of cells is smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, which means they are able to develop into nearly any of more than 200 types of cells in the body. Scientists create what are called “stem cell lines” or cells that are grown in culture and consistently multiply genetically identical cells for use in research to observe diseases or test treatments.

In cancer, researchers are studying ES cells, close cousins to cancer cells, to learn how cancer cells replicate. ES cells may be used as a drug target for cancer cells. They may also be used to personalize cancer therapies. Before a cancer patient takes a chemotherapy regimen that is extremely toxic, doctors could take a skin cell from the patient, and through the iPS process, create liver cells and heart cells. The chemotherapy could be tested first on those patient’s “own” cells. A new drug regimen would only be given to the patient after it is clear that the drugs will kill the cancer, not the patient.

You may remember that in August 2001, then President George W. Bush announced a policy that Federal support for limited research using embryonic stem cells.  Over the next 8 years, Congress passed legislation to expand that policy which was vetoed.  When President Barrack Obama took office in 2009, one of his first acts as President was to issue an Executive Order expanding the policy and making Federal policy current with the state of the science.  The National Institutes of Health (NIH) began funding grants in the field under strict ethical guidelines and oversight.  However, a recent court ruling has brought the issue back into the spotlight.  Disease advocates and Congress are anxiously awaiting a final court ruling.

More than 10 years ago, the Prevent Cancer Foundation was one of the first cancer organizations to join the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR.)  CAMR is a coalition of 100 organizations cutting across diseases, geography and research and medical specialties that advocates for Federal policies that support embryonic stem cell research. Today, I have the pleasure of serving as President of this coalition and working with a prestigious group of disease advocacy organizations, universities and professional societies to ensure that policy supports this field of research, which holds promise for hundreds of thousands of patients suffering from debilitating diseases and disorders.  For more information about this issue, visit the CAMR Web site or the Prevent Cancer Foundation Web site to learn how to become an advocate in support of this and other policy issues.

Sign up to get the latest about cancer prevention and early detection directly in your inbox.