Editorial: Ideology ruins science

Published in The Hindu on September 7, 2010

Human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research in the United States has hit a major roadblock once again. A temporary injunction by the Federal Court for the District of Columbia has turned the clock back and brought to a halt all federally funded research on hESC. The court’s order comes a year and a half after President Barack Obama, through an executive order, broke the shackles on embryonic stem cell research, and provided the much-needed federal funding. However, this came with a rider. Money would be provided only after stem cells were harvested from the embryos, and could not be used for extracting embryonic stem cells, which would lead to the destruction of the embryos. This manoeuvre allowed the administration to sidestep the tricky Dickey-Wicker Amendment, a 1996 law that bars federal funding of any research that results in injury to or destruction of human embryos. Funding was also subject to certain conditions: that the embryos were no longer required for reproductive purposes, the donors provided informed consent, and no payments were offered for the embryos. But the judgment was based on a totally different reading of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment that federal support for the entire project should be denied even “if one step or ‘piece of research’…results in the destruction of an embryo.”

The consequences of the Federal Court judgment are dramatic: it can derail the entire field of hESC research. It is unclear if the court order would make ineligible even the 21 embryonic stem cell lines approved for federal funding by President George W. Bush in August 2001. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has approved 75 stem cells lines for funding, and invested nearly $400 million since 2005. About 125 projects worth $155 million are due for renewal within the next year. The retrogressive judgment asserts that it is only “speculative” and “not certain” that hESC research will eventually result in successful treatment for cell-based diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. While the main objection to the destruction of condemned embryos to facilitate research reeks of right-wing ideology, to challenge, without any basis, the potential of the research to treat certain kinds of diseases goes against the spirit of enquiry, the cornerstone of science. To bank solely on adult stem cells, which — unlike embryonic stem cells — are not pluripotent and hence cannot become any of the nearly 200 specialised cell types, is myopic and goes against the grain of scientific research. Finally, to close the door on hESC research as it competes with adult stem cell research for funding is nothing but reactionary fundamentalism.