Last week, the scientific world was abuzz with the news that adult stem cells could be used to regenerate tissues and cure diseases. This week, the political world is abuzz with the news of President Bush’s veto of Congressional legislation and his own alternative Executive Order for Expanding Approved Stem Cell Lines in Ethically Responsible Ways. While the Usual Suspects are busy denouncing Bush for being anti-science, the media debate completely obscures the economic interests at stake. Big biotech companies stand to make money from government subsidies of embryonic stem cell research. By contrast, the use of stem cells from non-destructive sources have already produced cures, and will ultimately be cheaper to the healthcare consumer.
Scientists have successfully used stem cells found in the blood of umbilical cords to treat leukemia and other malignancies, thalassemia, and other blood disorders, immuno-deficiencies and other conditions. In fact, stem cells from adults and umbilical cord blood have been used in the treatment of more than 70 different diseases and medical conditions. Embryonic stem cell research is still in its, well, embryonic stages.
The use of umbilical cord blood is more humane than the use of embryos for two reasons. First, no human life has to be destroyed to produce the umbilical cord blood. These stem cells result from a live birth. We don’t have to convince each other about when life begins. Everyone who wants to save lives through regenerative therapy can use umbilical cord blood in good conscience.
Second, the use of umbilical cord blood will undoubtedly be less costly than the use of embryonic stem cells. The supply of umbilical cords is pretty much unlimited. We can get a new batch from every newborn baby. New parents can ask their hospitals how they can donate their baby’s umbilical cord blood, for their own family’s use or for the use of strangers. By contrast, the supply of embryonic stem cells has inherent ethical and economic limits.
Advocates of unlimited experimentation on human embryos often claim that 400,000 frozen embryos would just go to waste unless they are made available for research. Yet few couples sign the waiver allowing their unused embryos to be donated for research. A 2003 Rand Corporation report found that only 2.8 percent, or 11,000 frozen embryos are available for research that involves their destruction.
Therefore, even under the most favorable of circumstances, the number of “discarded” embryos would not be sufficient to generate the genetic diversity needed to provide practical treatment for large numbers of patients. That means we would need some other way of creating embryos. Cloning is one method. Another is to induce women to allow their eggs to be harvested for research. The impact on their own future fertility is not now known.
However the embryos are obtained, someone, somewhere must maintain a genetically diverse “bank” of embryos, waiting to be used for therapeutic purposes. This would be more expensive than maintaining a blood bank of umbilical cord blood.
But for some people, that expense is exactly the point. Significant economic interests are at stake in doing the research, maintaining the embryo bank, and patenting the embryonic material. Since umbilical cord blood is cheaper to harvest and maintain, patients could obtain treatments at lower cost using stem cells from umbilical cord blood than from human embryos.
And don’t forget, the political argument over stem cell research is an argument over government subsidy. The proponents of embryonic stem cell research insist they need taxpayer funding to bring these “miracle cures” to the market. A more cynical view is that a group of scientists and their business allies want government subsidies to defeat the competition from more effective, less expensive, umbilical cord blood.
By contrast, several privately funded umbilical cord blood banks are already up and running: the National Cord Blood Program and Cord Blood Registry. The Catholic hospitals of New Jersey have announced that they are willing to lead the effort to coordinate the donation, registration, and distribution process, with or without taxpayer funding.
That is why the use of umbilical cord blood is doubly more humane than the use of human embryos for obtaining stem cells. No embryos have to be created or destroyed in order to obtain the stem cells. And, since umbilical cord blood is more plentiful at lower cost, the ultimate cost to the patients will be lower.
This is the ultimate irony of the conflict over stem cells. Umbilical cord blood produces cells that are more practical than those obtained from embryo destruction. If we would allow the embryos to be born, we would have a ready supply of something more therapeutic and less costly. And, we get a free prize: a cute baby, as a by-product. That's a win-win situation all around.