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Ro Khanna, Mike Honda and Stem Cell Research: Future Meets Past in California 17th District

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Question: When is it right to vote against a good man?

Answer: When he is out of touch with his constituents, and when there is another good man to replace him.

Twelve-term California Representative Mike Honda (72) is a good man. Because he has been in office so long, he is endorsed by much of the Democratic establishment. However, due to redistricting, he is now running for a different district than the one he served so many years -- and this new district, California 17, includes Silicon Valley, the computer capital of the world. Whoever represents this district must understand technology and issues that did not even exist when Mr. Honda was in his prime.

Ro Khanna (37) is young, energetic and in-tune with the modern-day world: The slender Indo-American is endorsed by such computer industry leaders as Google's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, Facebook's CEO Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer.

My personal area of interest is stem cell research -- to ease suffering and save lives.

So I asked each candidate a simple question: Did they support embryonic stem cell research?

This is not small. Embryonic stem cell research is in the California Constitution, part of Proposition 71, the Stem Cells for Research and Cures Initiative.

In California, where biomedicine is rising fast (already the number two industry in the entire state, second only to computer manufacturing and equipment) every Representative must understand what is at stake. When the recession almost put out the lights recently, biomedicine remained stable and strong.

As the home of the California stem cell program, we are the largest source of embryonic stem cell research funding in the world.

Already California partners with 14 nations in stem cell research endeavors, and we are close to breakthroughs in multiple diseases like heart disease, cancer, diabetes and blindness.

Not knowing about stem cells in California is like living in Hollywood, without being fluent in movies.

Ro Khanna was already up to speed. When I asked him if he supported embryonic stem cell research, he said: "Of course! Prop 71 was one of the best decisions any state ever made!" We spoke about some of the recent advances, and he was enthusiastic and informed.

Then I attended one of Mike Honda's fundraiser lunches, to hear him make his case for a 13th term in office, and had a completely different reaction.

Though Honda had a good speech (one he had plainly said a thousand times before and could do in his sleep) there was no energy. He just talked.

But exhaustion is common among politicians, who work far harder than is generally suspected. Maybe he was just tired. But if he was going to be representing our district now, I had to know if he was someone to support, ignore or oppose.

So I asked him the same question: Did he support embryonic stem cell research?

He seemed confused, as if he had forgotten that he had once supported it. He had, in fact, voted yes on the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act in 2007.

But now?

He mumbled something about adult stem cells and no need for controversial research and went on.

I tried for a follow-up question, but he had nothing else to add, repeating himself about adult stem cells not being controversial.

Nothing against adult stem cells, which have been around since 1942 (the health benefits of bone marrow transplants were discovered as an attempt to heal radiation poisoning, part of the A-bomb effort) and which have unquestioned value. But embryonic stem cells (taken from microscopic blastocsysts left over from the In Vitro Fertilization process, otherwise to be thrown away) are incredibly powerful. The best that can be said for any "substitute" stem cell source is that they are "just as good as embryonic" -- and so far I am not convinced anything else has reached that status.

As a country, America has long since decided to support human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research; we have had the great debate for more than a decade, and both sides have been heard at length.

The result? A recent national poll (Harris Interactive) shows 73 percent support.

"There is now overwhelming public support for using embryonic stem cells in biomedical research," said Humphrey Taylor, chairman of the Harris Poll, a service of Harris Interactive. "Even among Catholics and born-again Christians, relatively few people believe that stem cell research should be forbidden because it is unethical or immoral."

There are very good reasons for this amazing level of support; number one being that we want to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Our families deserve the best medical treatment science can provide.

But there are also human economic reasons to keep in mind like the threat of going bankrupt, or losing our homes. Whether by injury or disease, once a medical condition becomes chronic, the bills just skyrocket.

"...half of all bankruptcies in the U.S. occurred in the aftermath of a serious medical problem..." -- Elizabeth Warren, "Medical Bankruptcy in the United States, 2007: Results of a National Study " by David Himmelstein, et al.

Home foreclosures?

We studied homeowners going through foreclosure in four states and found that medical crises contribute to half of all home foreclosure filings. If these patterns hold nationwide, medical causes may put as many as 1.5 million Americans in jeopardy of losing their homes each year... -- "Get Sick, Get Out: The Medical Causes of Home Foreclosures", by Christopher Robertson, et al; Health Matrix: Journal of Law-Medicine, Vol. 18, No. 65, 2008

Nor can we forget the national debt.

How much is the most recent installment of the national debt? According to the conservative Heritage Foundation, "In 2013...the deficit was 'only' $642 billion."

But add up the annual costs of just four chronic conditions -- heart disease and stroke ($432 billion), diabetes ($174 billion), lung disease ($154 billion), Alzheimer's disease ($148 billion) -- that adds up to $908 billion, not far south of a trillion dollars.

Chronic disease and the deficit is like gasoline and a campfire.

If the costs of disease grow so high that people go bankrupt, who gets stuck with the bills? We all do. Either the taxes go up to pay for social programs, or we borrow, and put it on the tab and the national debt goes up.

So there is the choice. Unless we are planning on abandoning our loved ones, we either have to take care of them or cure them.

Stem cell research is crucial to our nation.

When we send a man or woman to Washington today, he/she must fully understand the urgent importance of biomedicine in general, and stem cells in particular.

I believe that America must follow California's lead and invest in embryonic stem cell research. Government investment in R&D has been responsible for much of the medical discovery and technology that we take for granted today. With a forward looking research agenda in Congress, we can continue that tradition and lead the world in finding cures for some of the most intractable diseases. -- Ro Khanna, 26 April, 2014

Ro Khanna "gets it."

Mike Honda, apparently, does not.