Stem cell appeal and legislation should be placed on the fast track

Just when you thought the stem cell controversy was settled, it isn't.

A federal judge's ruling that challenges the legality of rules that govern human embryonic stem cell research could not only throw university research off stride, but businesses like Stemina, which has been studying stem cells to improve drug efficacy and safety, have seen their grant-winning momentum blunted.

Researchers can continue to spend grants already received, but new grant applications are on hold. (There are no such restrictions on induced pluripotent stem cell research, which is the emphasis of Madison's Cellular Dynamics International, because it involves the reprogramming of adult stem cells, not the destruction of embryos.)

Fortunately, there are remedies, and they not only include an appeal by the Obama administration, but a revival of the stem cell legislation enacted by Congress in 2006 and 2007, and twice vetoed by former President George W. Bush.

Those bills passed in a bipartisan fashion several years after Bush limited federal spending on embryonic stem cell research. Barack Obama reversed the Bush policy with a 2009 executive order, but this time stem cell research advocates should press for a Congressional stamp of approval in addition to a Presidential signature.

I don't really care about the politics of this. I care about advancing science and medicine in a moral and ethical way. Yes, moral, because while the research involved the destruction of embryos, researchers have used surplus embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics — five-day-old blastocysts that never will be implanted in a woman but could help find a path for treatments or cures for five-year-old children suffering from diabetes or leukemia.

That was a difficult ethical and moral debate, but the American public weighed the issues and rendered a judgment in favor of embryonic stem cell research.

I recall the 2006 Senate debate on embryonic stem cell research as one of the rare moments where I was proud of the people we send to Washington. Organized by Republican Senator Bill Frist, a physician by trade, both sides got to state their case, and they did so in a respectful and illuminating way. Devoid of the usual camera-hugging blather, it helped to solidify public support for research — ethical research — which had been building since Bush announced his more restrictive policy.

That policy limited federal funding to research on existing stem cell lines. It would have been even more restrictive if it hadn't been for former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, a stem cell research proponent who was serving as Bush's Health and Human Services Secretary. The Bush policy initially received reasonably strong public support, but the more the public learned about the research, the more the public turned away from the Bush logic.

I understand the views of those who don't want federal tax dollars used to destroy embryos, but the surplus embryos in fertilization clinics eventually die and they are discarded. Why not use them for a life-giving purpose?

Federal Judge Royce Lamberth is the jurist who issued the temporary injunction blocking Obama's more liberal policy from going into effect. Federal officials should waste no time in rolling Royce, both in the Courts and in the Congress.

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