Is Stem Cell Research A New Bay Area Revolution?

By RAYMOND BARGLOW and MARION RIGGS Special to the Planet
Friday May 28, 2004

There may be a new revolution brewing in the Bay Area, but this time it’s taking place not in the streets but in the laboratories. Advocates of stem cell research suggest that we stand at the threshold of biomedical breakthroughs that may transform modern medicine. At the forefront of this effort are universities like Stanford and UCSF, and local companies like Geron. Stem cells hold promise for curing such devastating illnesses as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, juvenile diabetes, MS, ALS, paralysis, and some forms of cancer and heart disease. 

The healing potential of stem cell research—as well as its ethical and political dimensions—will be the subject of the First International Stem Cell Action Conference (www.fisca.info) at the UC Berkeley campus on June 5-6. The conference, held in Pauley Ballroom, will bring together scientists, bio-ethicists, patient advocates, and interested citizens, providing the public with the opportunity to learn more about stem cell research and the policy challenges it faces. 

The research currently stands at the center of a nationwide and worldwide debate. Proponents of stem cell research, including patients and their families who stand to benefit from its discoveries, advocate it passionately. Don Reed, a conference organizer from Fremont whose son was paralyzed in a football accident, believes that the research is safe and ethical, and that it might lead to a cure for his son Roman, enabling him to walk again. “There are millions of folks in wheelchairs whom this research could benefit,” he adds. 

Richard and Debbie Arvedon, who will be coming to the conference from Hartford, Conn., have a daughter with juvenile diabetes. Embryonic stem cells could possibly be developed into insulin-generating cells to cure her illness. Arvedon was a civil rights organizer in the South in the ‘60s, and now he’s engaged in a new cause, advocating on behalf of the research. 

Stem cells are the raw material, so to speak, from which all of the body’s mature, differentiated cells are made. They give rise to pancreatic cells, blood and heart cells, brain cells, liver cells, etc. Tissue formed from embryonic stem cells might help repair damaged and diseased organs, or provide an alternative to organ transplants.  

One source of embryonic stem cells is somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), popularly known as “therapeutic cloning.” This technique inserts the genetic material from a patient’s cell, such as a skin cell, into an egg cell to create transplantable stem cells that the patient’s body won’t reject in a therapy. 

A second source of embryonic stem cells is in vitro fertilization (IVF), which typically results in the production of excess embryos. Tens of thousands of these embryos are routinely destroyed in IVF clinics after couples finish their treatment. Instead of having these embryos go to waste, scientists propose to use stem cells derived from them in their research to deepen human understanding of diseases process and to find cures. 

However, the religious right, which is notoriously influential in Washington these days, regards embryonic stem cell research as tantamount to murder. In 1991, President Bush issued an executive order severely limiting federal funding for research using stem cells derived from left-over frozen embryos in fertilization clinics. At the behest of the current Republican administration, embryonic stem research has also been neglected by the National Institutes of Health. 

Religious conservatives hold that the research is wrong for the same reason that abortion is wrong: Every human embryo—even one that is only a few days old and microscopically small—has an inviolable right to life. On the other hand, those who favor the right to have an abortion and the right to do the research do not attribute full personhood to the embryo. Hence there exists a natural alliance between pro-choice and pro-research advocates. 

Joining the anti-abortionist opposition to the research are some leftists, who give expression to a widespread public concern that stem cell science may be harnessed to the harmful aims of reproductive cloning and eugenics. The latter fear is fed by horrific visions of cloned babies born into brave new worlds, as in the movies Godsend and Attack of the Clones. But therapeutic cloning (serving medical purposes) is quite distinct from reproductive cloning (to produce a baby), and hence provides scant supplies for these science fiction scenarios.  

Does research of this kind merit the considerable economic investment that it requires? It can be argued that public health and preventive measures are today neglected and should be medicine’s highest priority. For instance, the social/environmental factors that contribute to diabetes’ increase over the past two decades need to be addressed. Yet anyone who has seen a child suffering from diabetes surely hopes also that a medical remedy will be found. 

And that remedy should be available to every person who needs it. Federal funding for stem cell research can best insure that the research is properly overseen, serves the common good, and is not held back by patent and other proprietary interests. 

The Cures for California campaign, a sponsor of the First International Stem Cell Action Conference, has gathered over one million signatures to place the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative on the November ballot. The initiative authorizes state bonds to provide 295 million dollars per year over the next 10 years to stem cell research within the State of California. The state will benefit from royalties that result from the research, and the interest and principle payments on the bonds will be postponed for the first five years. Thus, the initiative is designed to protect and benefit the state budget. This initiative will be discussed at the FISCA conference in Berkeley, June 5-6. 


Information about the conference is available by telephone at 595-5551 and on the web at www.fisca.info. Registration for the conference is required. 


Raymond Barglow, Ph.D. lives in Berkeley and is a member of the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club. Marion Riggs is the founder of the Student Society for Stem Cell Research.