Dan S. Kaufman


Stem cell biology has recently been at the forefront of a national discussion combining science, politics, and ethics. Few aspects of medicine and scientific research have been the subjects of a frenzy like that surrounding human embryonic stem (ES) cell research. Often lost amidst the opinions of pundits and op-ed writers in articles about research on human ES cells is: (1) the scientific basis of this research; and (2) the reasons why scientists and physicians are so interested in pursuing these studies. Quite simply, human ES cells are uniquely suited for research that uncovers the fundamental basis of human developmental biology. They might revolutionize areas of medicine such as transplantation medicine or gene therapy, and research on them will likely impact a wide variety of other fields. Indeed, in describing human ES cells, Harold Varmus, former director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), said "It]here is almost no realm of medicine that might not be touched by this innovation." Under Varmus, the NIH released a report in which nineteen of its institutes each answered the question, "What would you hope to achieve from human pluripotent stem cell research?" The health conditions potentially better understood or treated range from cancer to neurological diseases, to HIV and AIDS, to burns and trauma, to hearing and sight, and to drug abuse and mental illness. The scientific and medical impact of this research is almost endless.

The federal government, primarily through the NIH, provides the largest single source of funding for basic biological and medical research in the country. Whether or not the NIH is allowed to fund studies of human ES cells will determine how quickly scientific research on human ES cells will progress. On August 9, 2001, President George W. Bush gave his first nationally televised address since his inauguration. This speech addressed solely human ES cell research and the role the federal government should play in funding studies of these cells. In general, the President agreed that federal funding of research involving human ES cells would be permitted, but only on sixty or so human ES cell lines created prior to his speech. While this compromise did not fully satisfy either supporters or opponents of this research, it did set the stage to use federal dollars to move this research forward more rapidly.