By Tom Still

MADISON – Suppose you were asked to swing a golf club with one arm, or to write a one-fingered essay on your word processor. You wouldn’t get much accomplished, would you? Or, at the very least, progress would be painfully slow.

So it is for researchers in the field of human embryonic stem cells, the body’s core cells that can grow into just about any kind of cells. Federal limits on financing of embryonic stem cell research have turned out to be much more restrictive than imagined – to the point that scientists searching for cures to diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and diabetes are fighting with one hand tied behind their backs.

Shortly after he took office in 2001, President Bush bowed to the ethical concerns of some pro-life supporters when he said federal dollars could only be used to conduct research on 78 existing stem cell lines. It has since turned out that many of those lines are unavailable or unfit for laboratory work, and the race is on to grow new lines that can be used by scientists.

UW-Madison’s WiCell Institute, a non-profit lab established in 1999, is one place where new lines can and will be grown. WiCell, a subsidiary of the independent Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, has distributed stem cells to 163 research institutions since it was created. Those stem cells came from five federally approved lines, and they are generally viewed as being among the highest quality lines available.

But with only 15 lines currently available nationally, the research pipeline is far from filled. Others are trying to fill the need by essentially “privatizing” the research.

Researchers at Harvard University announced this month they are giving scientists free access to 17 new stem cell lines developed without government money. However, some experts question the long-term usefulness of those lines because they are being maintained on mouse feeder cells, which may transmit animal viruses. It’s also unclear whether Harvard has the distribution infrastructure necessary to get those stem cell lines to qualified researchers. Finally, any lab that chooses to use the Harvard cells can only do so if it doesn’t accept federal dollars from agencies such as the National Institutes of Health.

The NIH is doing what it can to can to get more stem cell lines ready (perhaps eight more lines are in the wings) and is sponsoring research that falls within the 2001 limits. But the agency is spending 10 times more on research involving adult stem cells. While that research doesn’t raise the same ethical concerns, it offers less promise than embryonic stem cells.

Embryonic stem cell research is controversial because extracting the cells requires the destruction of very small days-old embryos. Those embryos come from fertilized eggs that would otherwise be discarded by fertility clinics, where childless couples go to undergo in vitro fertilization. Unless those eggs are implanted in the womb of a woman, they cannot grow to become a human being.

For 25 years, fertility clinics have served a societal good by helping people have babies. And, for 25 years, the vast majority of the unused eggs have been thrown away. If the donors agree, doesn’t it make sense to use those unused eggs for research that could save countless lives and untold suffering?

Unfortunately, a large segment of the pro-life movement disagrees, which is why Bush restricted federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. The net effect has been to dramatically curtail the role of the NIH in such research – a situation that not only slows research, but that could invite abuse is stem cell research takes place well outside regulated channels.

The chances are slim that stem cell researchers can attract enough private dollars to finance their work, because it will take years to produce a marketable product. If society wants to speed the day when stem cells can replace diseased cells or repair the human brain, pancreas or heart, the limits on federal funding should be lifted.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.