NIH, do the right thing

James Sherley Contributor
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Americans are nearly equally divided on the issue of whether the government should fund human embryonic stem cell research. Yet the National Institutes of Health (NIH), America’s largest and premiere agency for funding biomedical research, continues to act as if no Americans care about the unethical treatment of the human subjects required by the research.

The mainstream media and many politicians persist in portraying the divide as religion versus science. Perhaps they do this because it is the limit of their understanding of the key issues, or because they oversimplify out of practice, or because they apply poetic license to invoke archaic adversaries, or even to save print space and airtime. Whatever the reasons, the resulting misinformation wastes time and money; compromises the integrity of American science; and promotes ethical misconduct with human research subjects.

The divide between Americans on whether human embryonic stem cell research should be funded by their government, or permitted at all for that matter, is one of misinformation and poor understanding. There are just a few facts that, if made clear to Americans, would serve the country with better informed opinions and decisions.

First, the NIH itself has many pre-existing guidelines that require that human research subjects, including unborn subjects, are not knowingly placed at risk for significant injury or death.

Second, human embryos are living human beings, and the production of human embryonic stem cells results in the certain death of human embryos.

Third, although research with human embryos might yield many new mysteries of human biology, forgoing this research on ethical grounds will not preclude “stem cell research” per se for better therapies for debilitating human injuries and diseases. In fact, adult stem cell research is more than just an alternative. It is the biologically superior choice for developing new treatment strategies, because adult stem cells are the natural cells for repair and renewal of injured and diseased tissues in children and adults.

Human embryonic stem cells, which are precursors for the mature tissues that appear later in human development, do not have the intrinsic ability to renew and repair those tissues throughout adult life. So, their proposed application for human therapies requires that they be used to produce adult stem cells, which can maintain mature tissues for long periods naturally. This problematic requirement can be seen in the planned “human embryonic stem cell” clinical trial by Geron Corp. In fact, Geron plans to introduce cells produced from human embryonic stem cells.

A major risk in their trial is tumor formation by producer human embryonic stem cells that are likely to contaminate their treatment cell preparations. Another overlooked risk is that, if the treatment cells do not contain the appropriate renewing adult stem cells, they will also fail. Do the responsible scientific leaders at NIH know these facts? Of course they do. So, why do they now find themselves in court appealing a ruling that should never have been at issue in the first place? Politics.

They have been motivated by a misplaced allegiance to the current administration, instead of meeting their responsibility to the American people. The charge of the NIH is to conduct ethical research in the interest of the health of the people and to report derived scientific knowledge truthfully and prudently. The current NIH leadership has failed to meet this standard; and at the moment the country is paying the cost for their shortcomings.

NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins could begin repairing the country’s unnecessary schism on human embryonic stem cell research today by simply doing what the country needs him to do most, his job. He should ensure that NIH conducts ethically sound research and reports the facts regarding the humanity of human embryos.

James L. Sherley, M.D., Ph.D. is a Senior Scientist at the Boston Biomedical Research Institute (BBRI) in Watertown, Massachusetts (USA) and a plaintiff along with a coalition of Americans, molecular biologists and stem cell researchers against the NIH to stop taxpayer funding of human embryonic stem cell experiments which destroy innocent human beings.