THE BLOG
08/13/2010 04:20 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

How Stem Cell Research Can Unite Democrats, Excite Independents, and Marginalize the GOP

Seventeen months ago, March 9th, 2009, while my paralyzed son Roman Reed watched from his wheelchair in the second row of the audience, President Barack Obama smiled, reached for a pen, and scrawled his signature at the bottom of a document. Then he did it again, with another pen, and copy of the document, repeating the action five or six times.

He was keeping a campaign promise, reverse the stem cell research restrictions of his predecessor. Embryonic stem cell research could now move forward, with the blessing and the backing of the United States government.

It was a Democratic triumph all the way. For while there are courageous exceptions like Mike Castle, Orrin Hatch, and Arlen Specter, the vast majority of the support for stem cell research has come from the party of the donkey. We have been stubborn as a mule on this issue; we had to be.

The Republican National Platform of 2008 called for a complete "ban on all embryonic stem cell research, public or private," ignoring the personal support of its own Presidential candidate, Senator John McCain.

And in Congress?

Consider the voting record on the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007, (Castle/DeGette) a modest expansion in new embryonic stem cell lines for research. (The bill was passed twice, but vetoed by President Bush.)

In the Senate, support came from 45 Democrats, and 16 Republicans.

Opposing the research? 2 Democrats -- and 32 Republicans.

In the House, 216 Democrats supported the research, as did 37 Republicans.

The opposition was 16 Democrats -- and nearly ten times as many (158) Republicans.

In short: Democrats supported the research; Republicans tried their best to kill it.

Does this matter to the 2010 elections?

Only if Democrats want to win.

Stem cell research is the ultimate wedge issue, vital to voting groups Democrats must engage and bring to the polls in November. Democratic candidates -- especially those in a close race -- would be well-advised to make stem cell research a key plank in their platform, and talk it up every chance they get.

Three reasons for Democrats to focus on their record of victory with stem cell research:

  1. It will excite Democratic activists;
  2. It will attract the independent voter, who wants to go beyond politics as usual.
  3. It will give Republicans who voted blue in 2008 a reason to do so again.

First, Democratic activists want their party to take on the biggest problems. We want to ease suffering and save lives; that is why we are Democrats; that is who we are--and that is why we will walk door to door in defense of candidates who will fight the biggest battles.

What enemy could be bigger than chronic (incurable) disease and disability?

The number of children and adults affected by chronic illness or injury runs from a "low" estimate of 100 million according to the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research to the statistic given by a Johns Hopkins study, which describes as many as 133 million Americans suffering chronic disease.

And disabilities? According to the U.S. census, "51.2 million people...had some level of disability and 32.5 million (11.5% of the population) had a severe disability.

These are our loved ones, members of your family and mine -- and they vote.

Second: for Independent voters, the biggest issue is the national debt.

Chronic illness grows the deficit, like a financial cancer.

In 2009, direct costs of chronic disease reached $1.65 trillion -- as much as the entire national debt increase ($1.6 trillion) for the year.

Unless we are to abandon our loved ones, we have no choice but to either find a cure for them, or continue paying their hospital bills as long as they live. Since most of us cannot afford this, we increasingly turn to the government, which means taxes -- and increases to the deficit -- which is already imperiling our children's future.

Cure research is the only way to cut the mountain of medical debt.

Think what research meant for polio. Before the Salk vaccine was discovered, polio was the number one fear in America. Not only were people becoming paralyzed and dying from it, but the cost was growing and growing.

If the Salk vaccine had not been developed through research, it is estimated we might be facing medical expenses approaching $100 billion a year, right now, for this single disease, just to keep sufferers alive, gasping in their iron lungs.

That gigantic expense is gone now; we don't have to pay for polio any more.

But consider this: the vaccine was developed from research involving embryonic tissue. That did not stop President Eisenhower from honoring Dr. Salk.

But what if George Bush had been in power then? What if we had to ask the permission of the "modern" Republican party to get the Salk vaccine? Would President Bush have given Salk a medal? More likely he would have denied him funding, or put him in jail!

So if Democrats are whole-heartedly pursuing cures which can lower medical costs -- while the Republican party is hogtied by ideological extremism, which one should Independents support?

Finally, consider the moderate Republican. They do exist, and they remember better days. These are our business leaders, supporters of the burgeoning new biomedical industry. They understand both the humanitarian and the business aspects of the new life science business community: scientists, educators, and entrepreneurs working together for the good of all. It is no accident that California's magnificent stem cell program was supported by the vast majority of the Golden State's chambers of Commerce.

Business leaders have an important and legitimate concern: they can't afford ever-growing health care costs for their employees.

How can incurable disease ever be fully insured? To pay the medical bills of an employee for the rest of his or her life, no matter how much hospitalization and special treatment is required? The costs are increasingly impossible to meet.

Consider: all federal income taxes combined ($1.2 trillion last year) are less than the cost of chronic disease and disability ($1.65 trillion). If we poured every dollar from our federal tax receipts into health care for the chronically ill -- it would not be enough.

Above all, Republicans love their families like everybody else. And when it is one of their children suffering, they naturally want the best medicine science can provide.

And everybody -- Republican, Independent, or Democrat -- wants jobs. Right now, what industry shows more growth potential than biomedicine? In California biomed is already the second largest industry -- and growing so fast a special law had to be passed (Senate Bill 471, the Biomedical Training and Stem Cell Research Education Act, Romero/Steinberg) to insure enough trained workers would be available to meet the growing demand. How many industries can make that claim nowadays?

Politically, where do voters stand on the issue of embryonic stem cell research?

• Independent voters average 70% support for embryonic stem cell research

• Among Democrats, an unwavering 74% support--doubtless even more among the activist base, on which electoral victory depends

• Even among Republicans, 41% support it. They have families, and when it comes to fighting a disease which threatens a loved one-- medicine trumps partisanship.

But, some candidates worry, if Democratic candidates strongly support embryonic stem cell research -- won't that incite the "Values Voters" of the Religious Right?

Ask them. At the Family Research Council-sponsored 2007 Values Voters convention, when the stem cell debate was at its hottest, a poll of 5,000 attendees was taken. Among folks who are arguably the most socially conservative voters on earth -- less than one percent (0.85%) considered "experiments on early embryos" an area of concern.

Catholic voters, like my family, have been mercilessly inundated with anti-embryonic stem cell research "information". Yet poll after poll shows strong majorities of American Catholics in support of the research. A recent Gallup poll of the general public cited 63% Catholic support, compared with 62% of non-Catholics.

Indeed, a 2004 poll of Catholics only (conducted by former President George W. Bush's polling company, Belden, Russonello & Steward) showed that: "A large majority of Catholic voters (72%) supports 'allowing scientists to use stem cells obtained from very early human embryos to find cures for serious diseases such as Alzheimer's, diabetes, and Parkinson's.'"

Very few people believe the "stem cell research equals abortion" nonsense anymore. They can verify the truth easily, because: in embryonic stem cell research, there is no pregnancy. An abortion without a pregnancy is like a man giving birth -- impossible.

Embryonic stem cells are made from biological materials (sperm-egg blastocysts) left over from the fertility procedure -- and only when the decision has been made to discard as medical waste. Without the nurturing shelter of a mother's womb, it is biologically impossible to make a child. This is not rocket science: no mother, no baby.

Republican strategists have invested a lot of time and resources "explaining" why embryonic stem cell research is not needed, because (and this is true) adult stem cell research is already helping people, such as with bone marrow transplants.

Where adult stem cells are helpful, who would object?

But adult stem cell research has been around a long time, since the end of World War II.

(For an excellent article detailing how adult stem cell research sprang from A-bomb radiation concerns, read "Manhattan Transfer: Lethal Radiation, Bone Marrow Transplantation, and the Birth of Stem Cell Biology, ca 1942-1961"; Kraft, Alison; Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, Vol. 39, Number 2, pps.171-218.)

Embryonic stem cells were only isolated in humans in 1998, so the adult version had a half-century head start, not to mention massively preferential funding.

Adult stem cells have not only been free of political/religious harassment, but have been lavishly funded by the Bush Administration as well, routinely receiving many times what was allowed for embryonic. For example: "In 2005 the NIH funded $607 million worth of stem cell research, of which $39 million was...for hESC."

Just a few days ago, something wonderful happened: approval of the world's first human trials of embryonic stem cells.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave long-awaited permission to Geron's attempt to ease paralysis with embryonic stem cells.

That matters to me, and to my family.

My son, Roman Reed, is paralyzed from a spinal cord injury he received in a college football game fifteen years ago.

Roman inspired a California law, the Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Act of 1999. This legislation provided initial funding for the embryonic stem cell research of Dr. Hans Keirstead, carried forward by Geron. For the past eight years, the scientists and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have been testing the procedure again and again, to make it as safe as humanly possible. (There is never perfect safety; people died testing the polio vaccine; indeed, people die from simple accident in standard medical procedures.) Finally, the FDA gave it the go-ahead.

Ten newly paralyzed children or adults will be given the chance my son never got: to maybe get well.

I have seen the therapy work. On March 1, 2002, in the Reeve-Irvine Research Center at UC Irvine, I held in my hand a laboratory rat which been paralyzed, but which scampered now, tail high -- and this while my son sat in his wheelchair a few feet away.

This was the research featured on 60 MINUTES, which made Christopher "Superman" Reeve famously say, "Oh, to be a rat!"

Reeve also sent our family a dictated letter saying, "One day,Roman and I will stand up from our wheelchairs and walk away from them forever." Cure did not come in time for our paralyzed champion, but the flame of his faith still lights our way. We will "go forward", as he always said, and we will prevail: not only in paralysis, but in much more.

FDA permission opens up an entire field. Other diseases potentially affected by this single therapy include: multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's, ALS (Lou Gehrig's diseae) and Spinal Muscle Atrophy (SMA) a hideous disease which kills children, often before the age of two.

Success in this first attempt (all phase one clinical trials focus on safety: that is the initial and primary goal) will make easier the path for all future human embryonic stem cell (hesc) therapies to follow.

Do we still need embryonic stem cell research, now that the new "reprogramming" of cells, (induced Pluripotent Stemcells, iPS), can use genes to "turn back the clock" on adult cells to make them seem like embryonic? Absolutely. ESCR is the gold standard, by which every other method must be judged.

As Dr. Kevin Eggan of Harvard put it, "Everything else is an imitation; HESCR is the real thing." Even the best alternative form has problems which may take years to resolve. Also, iPS was developed by studying embryonic stem cells in the first place.

What do the experts think?.

Ninety-three percent of scientists support government funding of embryonic stem cell research.

But let's take a different tack.

How many major scientific, medical, patient advocate or disease groups oppose embryonic stem cell research funding, even in the very moderate forms described in the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act? To the best of my knowledge, not one. The groups which took the trouble to officially oppose it are either religious or ideological.

There are so few, I can list them for you.

The following list was obtained from the RSC Republican Study Committee, Rep. Jeb Hensnarling, (R-TX), Chairman, 132 Cannon House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515. Legislative Bulletin, January 10, 2007

It was listed as a partial listing, but the numbers have not changed in three years.

Opponents of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act (HR 810, Castle/DeGette):

"National Right to Life Committee, US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Family Research Council, Christian Coalition , Concerned Women for America, Focus on the Family, Christian Medical Association, Eagle Forum, Traditional Values Coalition, Southern Baptist Convention, Susan B. Anthony List, Republican National Committee for Life, Cornerstone Policy Research, Culture of Life Foundation, Religious Freedom Coalition, Coral Ridge Ministries, Center For Reclaiming America."[pdf]

Groups in support of embryonic stem cell research funding? 581 scientific, medical, patient advocate, faith-based and disease education groups supported H.R. 810, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, Castle/DeGette. (That list is 14 pages long, single-spaced, too lengthy to be included here, but you can see all the groups at the bottom of an article I wrote a while back.)

What does it all boil down to? Every American family has the right to the best medicine science can provide. One party supports that common sense notion; one party does not.

By allowing ideology to decide its medical science position, the Republican party has marginalized itself; it is out of touch with the reality of millions of suffering American families.

The Democratic party supports research for cure, science in the public interest. It deserves our thanks, our support, and our votes.

Remember in November.