In the 1960s, McCulloch-Till discovered stem cells while studyingthe effect of radiation on the bone marrow of mice. In the 1980s, two groups ofresearchers derived embryonic stem cells from mouse embryos. In the 1990s,James Thomson developed a technique to isolate and grow human embryonic stemcells (hESCs) in a cell culture. In 2006, Shinya Yamanaka successfullytransformed human fibroblasts into pluripotent stem cells using four genes witha retroviral system.
With each groundbreaking discovery, thousands of people—fromthe world's top scientists to average Joes—began to question some of theethical, moral and social aspects of stem cell research, and in 1995, Americanlawmakers attempted to address those concerns in the form of Dickey-Wicker, anappropriations bill rider that prohibited the National Institutes of Health(NIH) from using government funds for the creation of human embryos forresearch purposes, or for research in which human embryos are destroyed. In theearly 2000s, President George W. Bush issued an executive order restricting theuse of federal funds for hESC research. A few years later, his successor,President Barack Obama, reversed that order.
Five decades into the stem cell era, this promising area ofresearch is still very much under a cloud of uncertainty. So where do we gofrom here? In 2009, a pair of adult stem cell researchers sued the governmentover Obama's executive order in a controversial case that effectively reignitedthe debate over hESC research. After a four-year court battle, the case foundits way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which kicked off 2013 by declining to hearthe case. And so, the uncertainty continues.
In our cover story, "End of the road for hESC opponents," webring you this news, along with some very interesting interviews with theplaintiffs in Sherley v. Sebelius,adult stem cell researchers James Sherley and Theresa Deisher, as well as theirattorney, Samuel Casey, managing director and general counsel for the Law ofLife Project. All three of these opinionated people have always been generouswith ddn in granting us revealinginterviews, and although they seem a bit fatigued by their long court volley,once more they did not hold back.
"What we have going on right now with hESC research is thecivil rights movement of the 21st century, a debate on whether scienceis going to enslave and manipulate the embryo," says Casey. "They are the newslaves. They are too small to vote. We are reopening the door on human subjectexperimentation, something that until now, only World War II closed the dooron. I have spent the last 10 years trying to point out the truth, and this iswhere we today."
Casey says the plaintiffs won't continue to pursue theircause in court, and a legislative remedy or renewed examination ofDickey-Wicker may be needed to end the debate—"but ultimately, language isplastic and will be manipulated depending who has the political power," opinesCasey.
"Obama is largely ruling on executive order now, because youcan't get anything through Congress," he alleges. "It is a great disappointmentto live in a country where a president's executive order can be deemed toabdicate your rights."
For Sherley, his focus will be on his stance that humanembryos are living human beings, and thus, the government should not be fundingresearch that uses them.
"The one thing I want—although I don't think he'd ever doit—is for [NIH Director] Francis Collins to come out, put his stake down andanswer the question of whether human embryos are living human beings. If hesays yes to that question, we should not be funding this research," saysSherley.
Sherley, who has authored hundreds of op-eds and letters tolawmakers on the subject, says he is considering compiling them into acollection of writings.
"I'd also love to get back into a university setting, whereI can have a larger imprint on young minds, but I think that writing will bethe best use of my time," says Sherley, who was a professor at the MassachusettsInstitute of Technology from 1998 to 2007. "Something I am interesting inwriting is some scholarly work on what happened in Roe v. Wade. I think we have to go back and look at that decisionas scientists. When we look at the case, there is no science in it. Our casewas like that, too. When we are talking about hESC research, we are talkingabout abortion. We need to change the way we treat the unborn and embryos."
No matter how the debate continues to play out, Deishermaintains that adult stem cell research will come out the victor.
"It's not rocket science," says Deisher, who heads AVMBiotechnology, an adult stem cell research firm in Seattle. "hESCs form tumors,illicit immune rejection and are outrageously expensive. We need to inform theAmerican people that adult stem cells are a better alternative. We can do thiswork without exploiting other humans."
Meanwhile, until scientists and the government can reachmore of a common ground on the issue, you can read more about theseindividuals, their case and their cause on our website, www.drugdiscoverynews.com,as well as our blog, www.drugdiscoverynews.com/blog. We invite you to weigh inon the debate on our blog, because isn't it about time we get serious about it?