How Bernie Siegel and Embryonic Stem Cell Research May Help Solve the National Debt

Reducing the national debt is perhaps the one issue everyone agrees on, even in the hyper-political swamp that is Washington today.

Stem cell research may have a surprisingly large role to play in that battle.

But first, meet Bernie Siegel. You will be hearing a lot about him in the life-or-death battle for the continuation (or not) of advanced stem cell research, so let me introduce you.

With a combination of showmanship, science, and plain common sense, attorney Bernard "Bernie" Siegel is one of the most inspirational leaders in the regenerative medicine movement.

At this year's World Stem Cell Summit, no less a personage than Bob Klein, founder of the California stem cell program, thanked Bernie for "building the regenerative medicine movement."

A tremendous compliment, richly-deserved.

The silver-haired Floridian first leaped into national prominence during the "cloning" scare in December 2002, when some rather unusual people announced in Hollywood, Florida that they had cloned the first human being, whom they said was called "Baby Eve." The group making the claim was Clonaid, affiliated with a UFO group, but it had appeared before Congress, and was taken seriously then.

Bernie figured, if this story is true, and there actually was a little cloned person, she would be in need of major medical attention.

Remember Dolly the cloned sheep? She was number 267 -- the first 266 sheep died in the process -- which is just one of many reasons no responsible scientist in the world wants to do reproductive cloning people. Not only would it be dangerous to mother and child, but we can make plenty of people the old-fashioned way. (Cloning plants, bacteria and cells are a more positive matter, of course.)

So Bernie filled out a legal application to be Baby Eve's guardian, which in Florida a person can do, if they have reason to suspect a child is being neglected or abused.

When he got home from work that night, Bernie and his wife Cheryl were watching CNN, when across the bottom of the screen a little message banner read: "Florida attorney Bernard Siegel seeks custody of cloned baby."

His astonished wife turned to him and asked, "Bernie, what have you done?"

Despite numerous debates and press conferences, no proof of the alleged Baby Eve ever appeared. Within 30 days, Bernie's court case had knocked the credibility out of the outrageous claim. And that, one would think, would be the end of that.

But something very ugly arose: the political use of a new fear word, "cloning," which could be manipulated for political advantage.

Politicians who wanted to criminalize cloning appeared -- not just of people, which nobody wanted to do -- but of cells; research for cure.

The word cloning became a fear word -- "we don't want cloning, do we? Vote for me and I'll make sure we put those evil cloners in jail..."

A law was actually shoved through the conservative-controlled House of Representatives -- without a single public hearing -- to jail stem cell researchers who used any form of cloning.

Since no reputable scientist or agency recommended the cloning of people, there were few objections to banning attempts at human reproductive cloning.

But what about cloning cells for cure?

Called therapeutic cloning, or nuclear transfer, the new medical process had many possibilities. Could it regrow new nerve cells for a brain-injured person, restoring his or her ability to think? Or repair the body after cancer, or spinal cord injury?

Because the cloned cells would never be implanted in a woman's womb, it would be biologically impossible to use them to make a baby.

Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter issued statements in support of therapeutic cloning, as did Nancy Reagan, Christopher Reeve, dozens of Nobel Prize winning scientists, and hundreds of patient advocate groups.

But President George Bush said he "enthusiastically" supported the law to jail the scientists who experimented with nuclear transfer; is administration went so far as to try to get the United Nations to ban the research worldwide.

Bernie Siegel went to work. With Christopher Reeve, he arranged for a scientific conference on the research to be held in the headquarters of the United Nations.

He coordinated patient advocate groups to send out more than 35,000 faxed messages to key decision-makers at the United Nations -- and the momentum behind the scare tactics faded away, like the hiss from a hot air balloon.

Instead of a world treaty banning research, a toothless paper proclamation was passed.
Bernie was a leader in the First International Stem Cell Action convention in Berkeley, California in 2004.

The man and the mission were joined. Bernie left the practice of law, and created the Genetics Policy Institute think-tank, which now produces the annual World Stem Cell Summit.

The World Stem Cell Summit is a gathering place each year for the people who will bring cure to reality: not just the scientists, but the patient advocates who are the emotional muscle behind the effort, and the bio-med companies who will bring the product to the patients.

Bernie's choice of venues and partners is always special. By choosing Texas, he made the point that politics must never block research for cure -- and Baylor College of Medicine is a leader in world stem cell research. The Summit has also partnered with Stanford, with Harvard, with the University of Wisconsin, and with Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, home of the FDA. Michigan was the scene of a tremendous political battle, to remove ideologically-driven anti-research laws. Proposal 2 brought freedom for Michigan researchers; today, that state has a chance to be a world leader in the life sciences -- the healing hand of medicine. So, last month, Bernie partnered with the major universities in Michigan to present the 2010 World Stem Cell Summit in Detroit.

But all that was prelude to the crisis we face now.

The Dickey-Wicker Amendment was never debated, never voted on -- just inserted into must-pass legislation -- but this arcane piece of law is deadly dangerous.

A lawsuit brought by the religious right is using their interpretation of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment (which forbids endangerment of embryos) to try to shut down federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

Now, remember back to the beginning of this piece, when we mentioned the National Debt?
Last year the National Debt was $1.6 trillion. This mountain of debt is more than the entire federal income tax receipts revenue ($1.2 trillion).

But here comes one more giant number, and it may be the key to everything: $1.65 trillion. This is the cost of caring for the chronically ill, those who suffer from diseases which are (at present) incurable. Three-fourths of every medical expense dollar goes to caring for our loved ones with incurable illness or injury -- who are never going to get well.

One hundred million Americans suffer disease and disability for which there is no remedy. We can keep them alive, but we cannot make them well. We just maintain them in their misery until they die. Cure is the only way to lessen medical expense.

Every time we cure or alleviate a disease, we lessen the national debt, because we don't have to pay for those medical costs.

When Jonas Salk ended polio with the Salk vaccine, he did more than save lives and ease suffering -- he saved hundreds of billions of dollars for America.

Without that vaccine, we would be paying an estimated one hundred billion dollars a year to care for the wretched sufferers of polio, in institutions or in iron lung.

What if we could use embryonic stem cell therapies to cure even a percentage of another gigantic and ongoing expense -- cardio-vascular disease?

Visit the U.S. Government-run website, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and read just one sentence:

The cost of cardiovascular diseases in the United States, including health care expenditures and lost productivity from diseases and disability, is estimated to be more than $503 billion in 2010.

Five hundred and three billion dollars -- half a trillion bucks right there, almost one-third of the national debt -- from one cluster of diseases alone.

Medical research can lower the national debt, unless we cut ourselves off from advanced stem cell research.