Stem Cell Research: Science, Not Politics

On October 31, 1940, Franklin Delano Roosevelt dedicated the Campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, just a few miles from here. That day, knowing we were moving toward a world war, he said:

The total defense, which this Nation seeks, involves a great deal more than building airplanes, ships, guns and bombs. We cannot be a strong Nation unless we are a healthy Nation. And so we must recruit not only men and materials but also knowledge and science in the service of national strength.

FDR understood the role that science would play in the future of a strong and healthy United States and he was clear that medical breakthroughs were as important to our nation as guns and missiles.

Never has that been more apparent in our history than today. In some ways FDR's vision became a reality. Americans are living longer than at any time in our history... but there's a difference between living a long life that's productive and healthy -- and one filled with illness, disease and disability. FDR was saying that the government had a responsibility to do what it could to use the tools of medical research to help its citizens to live healthy and productive lives.

August 9, 2001 was another important date in our country's history. It was the day President Bush limited federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research and, in effect, took the opposite position from Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- closing, or at least partly closing, the door that Roosevelt had opened so wide to Federal support of medical research. By his action in 2001, President Bush ignited a debate that has continued to rage for the last nine years. Politicians, scientists, religious leaders, ethicists, the American public and of course millions of Americans living with disease and disability have passionately argued all sides of this issue.

The debate has not ended, and will not end, but what those of us committed to the promise of stem cell science know is that the ability of science to proceed unencumbered by politics was severely compromised. The federal government was saying that values other than those of pure science could determine research and funding priorities. For many stem cell scientists, it felt like, as one of them said, a boxer 'going into the ring with only his left hook but not his right jab.' And for the millions suffering from a debilitating and sometimes fatal disease, the pace of discovery was slowed to a crawl.

What this country truly needed then -- as it had since Jamie Thompson and John Gearhart discovered the potential of human embryonic stem cell research in l998 -- was leadership. Political leadership that understood the difference between politics and science, political leadership that knew, as FDR did, that the act of support for science meant allowing the values of science to take precedence over the issues of politics. I was honored to have been in the East Room of the White House on March 9, 2009 when President Obama signed the Order stating:

Today... we will bring the change that so many scientists and researchers; doctors and innovators; patients and loved ones have hoped for, and fought for, these past eight years: we will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research. We will vigorously support scientists who pursue this research. And we will aim for America to lead the world in the discoveries it one day may yield.

But medical miracles do not happen simply by accident. They result from painstaking and costly research -- and from a government willing to support that work... When government fails to make these investments, opportunities are missed. Promising avenues go unexplored.

Those were inspiring words, and despite the fact that there were still limitations to the NIH guidelines, it looked like it was now time to get to work.

And then on August 23rd of this year, all of you know what happened. Just as the door of Federal support had finally begun to open, Federal district Judge Lamberth blocked President Obama's 2009 executive order that expanded embryonic stem cell research, saying it violated a ban on federal money being used to destroy embryos. Research at the NIH was disrupted yet again, and a cold chill went through the scientific community in this country. Francis Collins, director of the NIH, likened the decision to "pouring sand into the engine of discovery." While a temporary stay of this ruling has occurred, we still don't know, long-term, where this will end up if it is left to the courts. And the last thing science needs is a nail-biter. Thrillers belong in the movies, not in the world in which scientists try to plan medical research.

What these recent events have made absolutely clear is that we need unambiguous legislation passed by Congress this year. Stem cell research is the "don't ask, don't tell" of science. The Dickey-Wicker Amendment remains in full force and Congress must find the political will to change it. As most of you know, Dickey-Wicker was created in 1996, two years before the field of human embryonic stem cell research even existed, and it was created to be a deterrent to abortion, not to slow down the most promising medical research of our time. But the opponents of stem cell research, in their determination to block the progress of science, are using the old law to new purposes. It will mean, among other things, that more than 400,000 frozen embryos left over from IVF treatments that could have been used for medical research will instead be discarded as medical waste. Is this what is meant by "pro life"?

Everyone wants cures for diseases and it is time to acknowledge that the tens of millions of living Americans suffering from chronic illness and disabling conditions are more important than cells in a petri dish. The Dickey Wicker Amendment has had the net effect of giving political cover to conservative members of Congress, both Democratic and Republican, and it is time for them to act courageously and stand up for those who cannot. Now is the moment to vote, not for what is politically expedient but for what it right.

We have primed the pump and now we need to establish programs that truly challenge our scientific community to take human embryonic stem cell research to the next level. Let the only limits be those that our scientists place on their own imagination, creativity and perseverance. Let us seize the opportunity for excellence.

The partner for support from federal and state governments is private philanthropy. The role of private philanthropy is to be nimble, to be entrepreneurial, to do the cutting edge and controversial work -- to test the concepts that, if they prove successful, can later be scaled up by public support. Historically, private philanthropy has been at the root of almost all of our major medical breakthroughs. But private philanthropy has always operated on the assumption that public support would be waiting in the wings to scale up the most promising work. Now, in the stem cell field, we have no such certainty. We don't know if the NIH will be there for us.

We are working hard to keep up our side of the bargain at The New York Stem Cell Foundation, where our stem cell research laboratory in Upper Manhattan has now become one of the finest such laboratories in the United States, with 20 fulltime researchers deriving stem cell lines and making them available to researchers throughout the country. Because we are private and receive no Federal funds, we are able to continue our work through these frustrating and debilitating cycles of off-again, on-again, off-again NIH support. But most of our collaborators are not so lucky. And there is no satisfaction for us in continuing to work when so many of our colleagues and collaborators cannot, especially since one of NYSCF's core missions is to expand the field. But it is not easy to do that when the climate is so uncertain.

We are growing the stem cell field now through our post doctoral Fellowship program and our new Investigator Program, both of which train and support young scientists in the pursuit of the most innovative and advanced translational stem cell research. This elite group of researchers is revolutionizing the practice of medicine. We have had 23 post-doctoral fellows in our program since we began in 2006. And this year I am proud to announce that NYSCF is expanding its efforts to cultivate the next generation of stem cell scientist by providing $24.5 million in funding to 17 Investigators to launch their own independent research, train other scientists, and foster innovative high risk / high reward research. But for the NYSCF's Fellowship and Investigators programs to truly succeed we must have a climate in this country that encourages these young men and women to enter this exciting field of science, not one that makes them worry if it is going to be a dead end. We don't want our program to feel like a small safe house in a hostile world. We want it to be the center of a large and healthy scientific community.

Like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the United States must continue to recruit not only men and materials but also knowledge and science in the service of national strength. By doing so we will continue to be the model for the world in judging stem cell research for its scientific merit, and in making science, not politics, the standard we go by -- and we will know that we are doing all we can to enable the great discoveries that will be made by all of you in this room today. Tomorrow you are all going to Capitol Hill to educate our elected officials as to why stem cell research is so critical. It is critical to American leadership. It is critical to the economy. It is critical to our great institutions and the scientists who make them great. But it is critical most of all to the tens of millions of Americans who suffer from chronic diseases and disabling conditions, for whom stem cell research symbolizes promise, not politics. I am confident that what we do tomorrow will truly make a difference.

This was a speech delivered in Washington, DC on September 21, 2010.