No one besides Donald Trump and his advisors could’ve predicted the jaw-dropping results of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. The reality show personality-turned-politician managed to defy polls, predictions, and the public’s perception to secure the 270 electoral votes needed to oust ‘favourite’ Senator Hilary Clinton.
The question of ‘who will be the next POTUS?’ was answered, but ironically, created more waves of uncertainty and confusion. The stock markets were a perfect example: when it was all but guaranteed Trump would become the 45th president of the United States, the DOW Futures and other important stocks futures were in constant flux, for fear of ‘Trump trades’ on the horizon.
Financial industries aren’t the only ones anxious about what a Trump presidency may hold. Scientists particularly those working in stem cell research fields are uneasily waiting to see how Trump’s policies will affect ongoing studies. Stem cell therapy and research that utilizes embryonic stem cells or fetal tissue in particular are expected to find the spotlight once again.
Both embryonic stem cell and fetal tissue research have faced strong backlash and tight restrictions on funding over the past few decades.
While Trump hasn’t explicitly said any changes towards stem research policy or restrictions, stem cell researchers are looking into the GOP’s past and Trump’s running mate to see which way his administration might lean.
STEM CELL TREATMENT
The embryonic stem cell field was heavily restricted under George W. Bush, restrictions that were later lifted by Barack Obama.
After Obama removed the federal funding restrictions on stem cell research in 2009, Vice President-elect Mike Pence wrote an op-ed for The Hill, claiming embryonic stem cell research was ‘an empty promise’:
“I am a Christian who believes that life begins at conception and that a human embryo is human life,” Pence wrote.
“Therefore, I believe it is morally wrong to create human life to destroy it for research. Not only that, I believe it is morally wrong to take the tax dollars of millions of pro-life Americans, who believe that life is sacred, and use it to fund the destruction of human embryos for research.”
Despite Pence’s presentiment towards the ‘unnaturalness’ of stem cell research, there’s no subjectivity about the field’s advancements: stem cell research has objectively progressed in recent years.
This exponential progression is largely attributed to both advancements in technology, and Obama’s reversal of Bush’s stem cell restrictions one of his first official actions in office. Today, stem cell therapy and treatments are being developed for conditions that were thought to be permanent or fatal: Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, and diabetes, among others.
Some scientists aren’t as concerned with Pence’s perceived view of the stem cell field, or Trump’s potential change of policy. Kevin McCormack, communications director at California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, feels bringing back the ‘funding ban’ that would halt research wouldn’t be as easy to green light now that stem cells are a credible, researched field.
“It would be like putting a genie back in the bottle,” said McCormack.
He cited an anecdote of a paralyzed man who regained movement in his hand thanks to an experimental stem cell therapy. McCormack says any action to restrict that funding or study, “would be like going up to someone and say you can’t have that treatment.”
Other scientists say funding and restrictions simply can’t be reintroduced, seeing how stem cells have become a common form of treatment for certain injuries, ailments, and diseases. Regenerative medicines, such as Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP) injections, have become mainstream in professional sports.
“There has been so much investment to do basic research,” said Dr. Lorenz Studer, director of the Center for Stem Cell Biology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “We want to move forward and see it’s going to work.”
IS FEDERAL FUNDING ESSENTIAL?
Studer says federal funding has become “essential for this type of research” over the past two decades.
Bush’s 2001 signing of an executive order that stopped all funding on embryonic stem cell research, besides a handful of cell lines, seriously handicapped the stem cell field. Researchers had to give up federal funding entirely, create siloed work environments separate from federal funding, or used cell lines that weren’t appropriate for their specific research.
“What you had to do was label all vial dishes, so some would be for federal funding and some would be for non-federal funding,” said Studer. “It was obviously very cumbersome.”
Once Bush’s constraints were lifted, Dr. Allen Spiegel, dean of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and vice chair of the National Institutes of Health Stem Cell Task Force, boldly stated that the years of restrictive embryonic stem cell research was a major setback for the American scientific community.
“In hearings [before senators] … I stated that banning funding for research on human embryonic stem cells was like tying one hand behind the backs of stem cell investigators,” Spiegel said in 2009.
“Lifting the ban cannot eliminate the effect of years of delay, but harnessing the full power of NIH to review and fund scientifically meritorious research projects will accelerate progress toward the goal of helping people suffering from diabetes, neurologic diseases and many other conditions.”
INDUCED PLURIPOTENT STEM CELLS (IPS)
Another area of concern could involve induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. iPS cells are reprogrammed adult stem cells, derived from skin or blood cells, that mimic embryonic stem cells.
Trump & Pence could see iPS as a viable alternative to using embryonic stem cells, rather than destroying ‘human life’ for the sake of research.
“These altered cells are known as induced pluripotent stem cells, and unlike embryonic stem cells, iPS cells do not require the destruction of human eggs or embryos,” Pence wrote. “These reprogrammed cells have equal or greater potential to heal unhealthy tissue or combat disease in human organs.”
But, as the National Institutes of Health reports, “it is not known if iPSCs and embryonic stem cells differ in clinically significant ways.”
Studer agrees with the NIH, going further in saying iPS cells aren’t a viable alternative, seeing as there simply isn’t enough evidence to support the claim about iPS cells, a relatively new discovery from 2007.
Another thing to keep in mind is the only reason iPS cells can be tested and seen as a comparable to embryonic stem cells was lifting the bans and restrictions that impeded research in the first place.
The general public will be in wait-and-see mode on how Trump’s presidency will affect their lives, but perhaps none more so than thumb-twiddling stem cell researchers.
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