Ron Reagan's speech today to the Democratic National Convention is expected to focus attention once again on the debate over stem-cell research, and the Bush administration's disconnect with many in the U.S. scientific community.
Reagan's scheduled speech coincides with increasing pressure in Congress for relaxation of administration-imposed restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research. Many foreign governments are easing their rules, prompting fears that the United States may be left behind in the race for curing diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson's.
In May, a bipartisan group of more than 200 House members called on Bush to loosen the limits on the stem-cell pool available for federally funded research. In June, 58 Democratic and Republican senators joined that call.
On Friday, Japan eased its rules on cloning to facilitate stem-cell research — joining Britain, Singapore, South Korea and Australia in providing an environment where the potentially lifesaving research can flourish.
Some prominent U.S. scientists have moved all or part of their laboratories abroad to take advantage of the more favorable atmosphere.
And in California, voters are to give a yea or nay on the November ballot to a $3-billion bond proposal to finance stem-cell research.
The embryonic stem cell is a primitive form of cell that can be isolated from the embryo days after conception. It has the innate ability to develop into any other type of cell found in the body. Unformed and unprogrammed, these cells presumably can be coaxed into producing new brain cells, insulin-producing pancreas cells, heart muscle and a host of other tissues that could take the place of damaged or diseased cells.
The key is figuring out precisely what chemical signals are needed to induce the transformations. That research requires a large number of cells — far more, some scientists say, than now are available under the federal guidelines.
Despite renewed interest in such research following President Reagan's death from Alzheimer's disease, some scientists think that the brain damage associated with that disorder is too extensive for stem cells to reverse.
Opposition to the research comes primarily from religious groups, which contend that the 5-day-old human embryos from which the cells initially are obtained are humans.
The federal restrictions on stem-cell research are one of many areas in which members of the scientific community have said that politics is interfering with science. This month, more than 4,000 scientists — including 48 Nobel laureates and 127 members of the National Academy of Sciences — issued a letter accusing the administration of distorting and suppressing science to suit its political goals.
Scientists repeatedly have criticized Bush for his stands on climate change, pollution, energy research and alternative fuels, among other subjects.
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times