Branching out in the stem cell debate

By Michelle Chen Mar 11, 2009

President Obama’s executive order to open up federal funding for stem cell research has been widely hailed as a watershed for scientific integrity and medical advancement. Yet, while much of the popular focus has been on using embryonic stem cells to create individualized therapies for severe conditions, it may have broader potential as a basic tool for researching the biology of diseases more generally. And now that the White House has cleared some (not all) of the moral gridlock over embryonic stem cell study, other ethical issues are entering the foreground: public-interest advocates are trying to make sure that solutions developed through stem cell technology are applied equitably and serve critical public needs. The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a California-based advocacy group, has called on the Obama administration to reform patent policies to ensure that the public has affordable access to stem cell breakthroughs. (The group has also pushed the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to incorporate such principles into its research funding guidelines.) The Center for Genetics and Society, a pro-stem cell organization, says that the next level of the bioethical debate on this emerging field must engage a broader range of communities:

Public and policy discussions of stem cell research and other human biotechnology issues must involve a wider range of voices than has been heard to date. Debate on these topics has been largely driven by religious conservatives, biomedical researchers, research advocacy groups, and the commercial biotechnology sector. Additional constituencies, including women’s and children’s health advocates; public health leaders; advocates for civil rights and racial justice; human rights leaders; and representatives of people with disabilities, need to be represented if the ensuing polices are to have broad support.

Questions of how genetic research interacts with race are slowly surfacing in the scientific and medical communities. As the government role in stem cell research grows, communities that have historically been marginalized, or even harmed, by the medical establishment may see a new path for channeling science toward the public good.