Embryonic stem cell research will likely have a more sympathetic ear in the White House after November’s presidential election, but a panel of speakers said Tuesday (May 20) that an era of tight budgets may limit the practical changes researchers see.
Warren Wollschlager, founding chair of the Interstate Alliance on Stem Cell Research and chief of the Office of Research and Development in the Connecticut Department of Public Health, cautioned that one danger facing stem cell research in a new presidential administration is that support from states and other sources will decline with the assumption that the federal government will begin funding research it has been reluctant to under President George W. Bush.
With the economy sputtering and tax revenues tight, he said, it would be a mistake for current funders to assume they will be able to put their dollars to other purposes.
Wollschlager was one of a panel of speakers Tuesday evening at the Radcliffe Gym addressing the future of stem cell policy. The event, “Fifty States, One Nation: Policy and Funding Considerations for Stem Cell Research at the State and National Levels,” was sponsored by the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. Introduced by the Institute’s Executive Director Brock Reeve, the event was the last of four public forums sponsored by the institute this academic year as part of its mission to foster discussion of the many aspects of stem cell research.
The panel discussion was moderated by Kevin Casey, associate vice president for Government, Community and Public Affairs at Harvard. Also on the panel were Wollschlager; Brooke Ellison, author, activist, and founder of the Brooke Ellison Project, which promotes embryonic stem cell research; and Massachusetts state Rep. Peter Koutoujian, chair of the Massachusetts legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health.
Casey, who has spent years in Washington, D.C., working on scientific research and funding, said the issues surrounding stem cell research are not only important, they’re also very complicated.
Casey and other panelists said that Aug. 9, 2001, was a seminal moment for embryonic stem cell research. That was the day that Bush announced that federal funding could be used for research conducted only on existing lines of embryonic stem cells and banned the use of federal funds for research on any embryonic stem cell lines created after that date.
That announcement changed the landscape for embryonic stem cell research, forcing scientists to scramble for funding from other sources and creating an administrative nightmare as laboratories struggled to separate equipment and supplies funded from federal and non-federal sources.
Over the last seven years, Casey said, a patchwork of regulatory and financial support for embryonic stem cell research has arisen, with some states passing legislation explicitly supporting the research, such as California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.
The panelists hailed from three northeastern states that have their own stem cell policies, Koutoujian from Massachusetts, Wollschlager from Connecticut, and Ellison from New York, where she ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate in 2006.
Though several states have stepped into the void left by the federal government on embryonic stem cell research, Wollschlager said that shortly after Connecticut began its own 10-year, $100 million effort in 2005 and struggled with unfamiliar issues such as technology transfer, intellectual property, and peer review, he realized that it would be helpful for states to share their experiences. The result was the Interstate Alliance on Stem Cell Research, an organization of nine states — California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin.
With all three remaining presidential candidates having voted favorably at one time or another for embryonic stem cell research, Casey said the federal landscape may change after the election. He cautioned, however, that the future is not clear, since politics will almost certainly come into play and can have an unpredictable effect on the outcome.
Panelists decried misinformation on the issue that they say is circulated and promoted by opponents of stem cell research. Ellison, paralyzed from the neck down after an accident when she was 11, became a spokesperson for embryonic stem cell research while at Harvard, where she graduated from both Harvard College and the John F. Kennedy School of Government. She recently founded the nonprofit Brooke Ellison Project, dedicated to fighting the misperceptions surrounding the work.
Ellison said that it is sometimes discouraging and exhausting for people like herself, who are also fighting personal battles against illness and disability, to continue the public fight. She called Bush’s 2001 decision not to fund embryonic stem cell research discouraging. She also said not pursuing research that could alleviate suffering felt like a betrayal.