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Making Political Sense of Stem Cells

The public has an unprecedented interest in an otherwise obscure medical technology. But is it getting an accurate message?
August 31, 2004

Embryonic stem cell research seems a technology tailor-made for politics. With its attendant debates on grave illness, potential cures, and the prickly question of when life begins, stem cell research has entered the nation’s political fray in a way that few issues of science and technology do.

Some might say it has been dragged there in recent weeks. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has relentlessly repeated his vow to reverse the ban on federal funding for stem cell research that President Bush instituted in August 2001. This week, President Bush is predicted to make his stance in favor of continuing that ban part of the Republican platform at the party’s convention in New York .

Even the public-opinion pollsters are invoking politics. “A good issue for the Democrats” read Harris Interactive’s subtitle for its August 18 press release describing a survey on stem cell research, one of several independent surveys released recently that have found a majority of respondents in favor of it.

But lost amid this summer’s public debate, say researchers and observers, has been an accurate depiction of the state of stem cell research. While marveling at how a largely obscure medical technology has resonated with the zeitgeist83 percent of respondents told Harris they had seen, heard, or read about the stem cell debatethey also express concern that the public’s expectations are outstripping the research’s more sober truths.

“How much is going to happen therapeutically, and how quickly, is not being discussed in realistic terms,” says Neil Theise, a physician and stem cell researcher at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City who says he has been invited to speak to fifth-grade classes on the subject. “In all likelihood, stem cell technology will lead to improvement, if not a cure, for the diseases talked about,” Theise says. “But how quickly it will happen is being exaggerated.”

Theise says his anecdotal experience indicates that many people believe stem cell related cures for hard-to-treat illnesses like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s are just a few years off. The truth, he says, is that such cellular therapies are decades away. Moreover, he adds, “it’s not that stem cells themselves, per se, will be the cure. It’s that in figuring out how stem cells work, we’re getting at fundamental aspects of the body.” So while stem cell research is a bonanza for basic biological knowledge, clinical applications are likely to be a long way off.

Stem cells are the cellular jacks of all trades. They are unspecialized cells capable of dividing and renewing themselves for long periods of time. They also morph into new kinds of cells. When found in adult tissues, such as bone marrow, stem cells typically generate the type of cells in which they reside. Embryonic stem cells are thought to be more versatile. They are derived from embryos fertilized in in vitro clinics, and they can develop into many different cell types. Medical researchers hope to coax stem cells into specific types of cells that could be the basis for regenerative therapies.

Specialists in stem cell science also say the public has been misled by the partisan tug of war over the notion that, given more study, adult stem cells could accomplish the same regenerative feats as their embryonic counterparts. In fact, researchers, say, studies of embryonic stem cells yield important information for the understanding of adult stem cells, and vice versa. But overall, embryonic stem cells still appear to hold the advantage.

“Scientists, if they’re honest, would say it appears at this time that embryonic stem cells are the most promisingbut a lot of that is based on our ignorance of what we can do with stem cells from other sources like umbilical cords and adult cells,” says Robert McGehee, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. “It may be that we just haven’t figured out how to do itbut more than likely we’re right: they can’t. The embryonic cell really is still the Holy Grail of stem cells.”

Stem cell research’s elevation to national debate is explained not only by its often emotional portrayal as a cure but also by political conservatives’ efforts to connect it to the abortion debate. Because harvesting the stem cells destroys embryos, some conservatives liken the process to abortion. “If it weren’t for the groups battling this out, the public wouldn’t have that much interest in the issue,” says Robert Blendon, professor of health policy at Harvard University. “It would be seen as another biological debate.”

But among the public, support for embryonic stem cell research is gaining ground. Independent opinion polls this summer show the public weighing in favorably on the research. According to Harris Interactive, 73 percent of respondents agreed that embryonic stem cells “left over from in vitro fertilization, which are not used and normally destroyed” should be available for research, up from 61 percent in 2001. Those who opposed the research on the grounds that “it is unethical and immoral” fell from 32 percent to 15 percent over the same period. In a survey released last week, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported that 52 percent of respondents said it was more important to conduct research “that might result in new medical cures” than it was to save “the potential life” of human embryos.

Surveys from anti-abortion organizations reach different findings. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last week reported that only 43 percent of respondents favored federal funding for research in which “live embryos would be destroyed”; 47 percent opposed.

Given the ease with which such a complex science can be distorted, however, those who study polling say public opinion is not likely to be well formed. When it comes to controversial issues like the death penalty, says Greg Shaw, associate professor of political science at Illinois Wesleyan University, “most people have given it a lot of thought and have formed strong opinions that theyll have for the rest of their lives.” Stem cell research is different, says Shaw. “When it comes to stem cells, who knows about that stuff? Scientists do, but most people are fairly clueless of what the implications are.”

Regardless of whether the public is making its decisions based on distorted messages about the state of stem cell research, such polls are an important part of the process, says Gordon Kingsley, associate professor of public policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology. In some ways, Kingsley says, the debate and politicization of stem cell policy is appropriate. “Participation in the policy is critical so that the many voices of the public have a sense of being heard. After all, they’re going to be governed by it. It would be antithetical for us not to have a way to chime in, even if it’s in an uninformed way and just to express angst.”

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