As debate circles around the human embryonic stem cell lines President George W. Bush said could be studied using federal funds, one physician at Johns Hopkins is already proposing discussions to broaden and strengthen the policy.
"Right now federally funded scientists are operating under one set of rules, and privately funded researchers are operating under another," says Curt I. Civin, professor of oncology and pediatrics at the School of Medicine. "We need legislation to regulate stem cell research, to allow the broadest pursuit of answers while keeping close watch."
Civin, in an editorial in the September issue of the journal Stem Cells, outlines a proposal for broadening permitted research with stem cells. Part of the purpose of the editorial is to provoke discussion of the topic among scientists, says Civin, editor in chief of Stem Cells.
"Back when in vitro fertilization began in Great Britain, the British began a national discussion and now seem much more advanced in considering the issues around embryonic stem cell research than Americans," says Civin, whose own research focuses on the stem cells that give rise to blood cells. "We need a national discussion here to develop a less conservative, more compassionate policy regarding embryonic stem cell research."
In addition to spelling out in laws what should and should not be permitted in embryonic stem cell research, the government should stimulate and fund studies on ethical considerations that arise from embryonic stem cell research, including defining criteria for an operational and legal definition of human life, says Civin.
Also, he wants to see generous funding for research related to stem cells from all different sources, since there is still so much to be learned. Says Civin, "We will find out things from studying one kind of stem cell that will provide understanding for studying the others. Scientists know that shutting off a research direction is so antithetical to the real process of discovery; we can't predict what we'll discover or where we'll discover it.
"We need to have our priorities, of course, and on Sept. 11 we were diverted and rightly so," he adds. "But we do need to come back to this. The government needs to make laws about this, not just policy. Laws affect everyone in the U.S.; policy affects only those researchers who rely on federal funds.
"To develop appropriate legislation, we need to discuss the potential ethical issues as a society. That is something we can do now, and something that will take a long time to do."
Do you work with stem cells? Would you like to share your opinion? Contact Joanna Downer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 410-614-5105.