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President Obama and the Embryonic Backfire

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As Barack Obama begins his second administration, now is the time to examine the impact his re-election will have on stem cell research and the broader regenerative medicine industry. Before diving into those implications, however, it's important for us to understand how perceptions of stem cell science have changed in recent years.

Surely, we all remember the dispute over embryonic stem cells during G.W. Bush's presidency. On one side of the issue were those that saw embryonic stem cells as a panacea for a myriad of debilitating conditions; these dexterous 'super cells', it was thought, could be used to repair any tissue or organ in our bodies and would cure or treat countless serious diseases and medical conditions. Conversely, we had those who opposed this kind of research on ethical and moral grounds, citing the destruction of human embryos or the use of human cells taken from embryos for scientific research. In 2001, Bush, heeding the calls of the right to life movement, restricted federal funding on embryonic stem cell research.

Today, if you walk down Main Street and ask everyday Americans about stems cells, very few of them can tell you correctly what a stem cell is. For those that think they understand, most are woefully misinformed. They believe that stem cells come from embryos and that these cells can cure cancer, Parkinson's and countless diseases and medical conditions, if only our government would embrace this kind of science. But in truth, embryonic stem cell research is but a speck on the broader canvas of regenerative medicine, a marketplace which has now grown to nearly $50 billion annually. And furthermore, most people are completely unaware that embryonic stem cell research has been largely a bust to date. While there might be an occasional hint of promise, the truth is that scientists have discovered that these embryonic 'super cells' are hard to control, and in fact, often result in tumor formation and various unexpected and dangerous outcomes in the clinic. Finally, most Americans have no idea that adult stem cells exist in all of their bodies throughout their lifetimes, in just about every tissue and organ, and that these cells have been creating a staggering array of recent medical breakthroughs -- and unlike their embryonic cousins, carry no ethical baggage.

Actually, adult stem cells have been used as part of blood cancer treatment in this country for over 40 years -- 'bone marrow transplants', for example -- and we have recently seen a deluge of headlines about the use of these powerful cells to treat an array of serious diseases and medical conditions. The New York Times released a front-page series on organ regeneration, while outlets like CNN and ABC News covered everything from repairing damage after heart attacks to treating MS, cancer, diabetes and an entire range of medical conditions -- all using adult stem cells. And perhaps the greatest tipping point came just last month when The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to stem cell scientists Shinya Yamanaka and Sir John Gurdon for their discovery that mature stem cells can be 'reprogrammed' into stem cells that have embryonic-like capabilities. Thus, instead of arguing over the merits of 'embryonic research,' we should now unite behind something that we all can agree on -- harnessing the miraculous healing capabilities of adult stem cells to reverse disease and reboot our immune systems.

Though it may strike some as controversial, we must ask ourselves if it were not for the dispute over embryonic stem cell research, would we already have adult stem cell cures for countless diseases and medical conditions? Would tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars have been alternatively pumped into adult stem cell research? Would we be able to replace the limbs of our soldiers? Would we have cures and powerful treatments for countless chronic diseases, from diabetes to heart disease, saving our government hundreds of billions of dollars each year (diabetes alone costs this nation approximately $175 billion annually)? Would we be on the doorstep of healing spinal cord injuries and traumatic brain injuries, and regenerating limbs and skin, something our veterans desperately need? But in 2009 President Obama repealed President Bush's executive order pertaining to embryonic stem cell research, and his re-election will certainly thrill embryonic stem cell scientists fighting for dollars and well-meaning patient advocates, who will resurrect the arguments over this small and unproven corner of cellular research, confusing minds and hindering capital investment in the validated arenas of adult stem cell science that are already delivering miracles.

It is exceptionally hard to cut through embryonic misperceptions that exist in the financial marketplace. And when you consider that biomedical and health R&D spending in the United States fell by more than $4 billion in fiscal 2011, we face an uphill battle in the years ahead in our quest to turn cells into conduits of hope and healing.

Dr. Robin Smith, Chairman and CEO of NeoStem, Inc., and President of The Stem for Life Foundation.