Is stem-cell research next?

October 6, 2010

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THREE DECADES ago, critics accused Robert Edwards of “playing God’’ with his “test-tube babies,’’ and the British government denied him research funds. This week, the awarding of the Nobel Prize in medicine to the British biologist who first perfected in vitro fertilization is a reminder that advances in human well-being can win nearly universal acceptance for procedures once considered highly controversial.

Today, 4 million human beings worldwide owe their lives to Edwards’s work. In the United States, 3 percent of all births begin with in vitro fertilization. The Roman Catholic Church still opposes it, but other critics have been hushed in the face of millions of overjoyed parents. The same pattern is likely to play out if and when scientists overcome the intense resistance to use of embryonic stem cells and harness them to treat diabetes, spinal cord injuries, or Parkinson’s disease.

The two breakthroughs — the outside-the-body fertilization of embryos and the derivation of stem cells from early-stage embryos — are closely connected. Stem cell researchers use embryos left over from in vitro fertilization procedures.

The process of extracting stem cells destroys the embryo, which is the reason that critics oppose it. But few would dare today to take on in vitro fertilization, even though it, too, often results in embryos being destroyed.

Edwards and his collaborator, Dr. Patrick Steptoe, turned to private funding when the British equivalent of the National Institutes of Health rejected their bid for a grant in 1971. Restricted and on-again, off-again access to NIH funding has forced embryonic stem cell scientists in this country to look outside of government, too. All these hurdles will look senseless when doctors can point to dramatic turnarounds in the health of their patients because of stem-cell technology.

That day will come sooner if Congress would look ahead and lift restrictions on federal funding for this research, and complete the circle between the happy births brought about by Edwards’ work and the restored health of millions of sufferers of devastating diseases.

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