Opinions

Lack of funding for NIH encroaches on progress

Stem cells have tremendous latent qualities that can prove useful in times of emergency medical need, such as repair or replacement of tissue damaged by aging, disease or injury.

In a way, stem cell research is a scientific territory offering cures for AIDS, Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, crippling arthritis, Crohn’s disease, hearing impairment, heart infraction, Lou Gehrig’s disease, male infertility, Parkinson’s, stroke and vision loss, among other infirmities. Stem cell research can offer cures to these possibly fatal diseases.

It was in 1968 that the first successful transplant of bone marrow was completed, curing a severe immunodeficiency disorder. After that, researchers made broad progress in identifying stem cells in human umbilical cords. In 1997, scientists successfully cloned Dolly the sheep using stem cell research. Soon after, scientists developed the potential to cure leukemia through stem cells.

Upon the heels of these advances, scientists found that by manipulating stem cells in mice and in humans, they could produce brain, liver or nerve cells. In other words, the future of stem cells looks bright and open to more discoveries with cures to debilitating and fatal illnesses a possibility.

However, nothing in science or life is straightforward. Stem cell research has been from the beginning beset by controversy and heated debate.

Cloning ignited the culture wars. It created the anti-abortion movement and marshaled the churches with renewed energy to oppose stem cell research. Some religious officials also started to restrict, if not eliminate, government financing that would transgress the vaguely defined moral law.

In 2016, the National Institute of Health estimated that the federal government collectively spent $1.5 billion in 2015 on initiatives involving stem cell research—fields ranging from cell biology to electrical engineering. Of this amount, $646 million was devoted non-embryonic, non-human stem cell investigation, government research says.

So far, no pharmaceutical companies have developed products, albeit some patents are being filed. The private sector has ventured into stem cells with some unfortunate results.

The “New England Journal of Medicine” reported that a loosely regulated clinic in Florida injected stem cell solutions into the eyes of two senior females. The treatment blinded one and nearly reduced the other to complete blindness.

Although the federal government keeps the NIH honest, this cannot be said of state authorities or the probity of private industry. Lest anyone forget, the appeal of a guaranteed cure encourages a cottage industry of bogus science advertising miracles.

As for the future, the Trump administration’s draconian budget plans, with a tinge of fundamentalism, will slash NIH funding for any research, giving primacy to military, defense and homeland security. Although the retreat into obscurantism will rejoice the moral majority, the reins on science have put the needs of humankind in the backseat.

March 27, 2017

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