COMENT ON TIME’S COVER STORY ON STEM CELL RESEARCH OF FEBRUARY 9, 2009

Time Magazine just did a cover story on stem cell research, which is commendable. They also entitled the story “The Quest Resumes,” which is commendable, focusing on the fact that the Federal Government, under the Obama Administration, may finally allow (this may already have been approved by executive order) federal funds for stem-cell research at federally funded research institutions.

However, the subtitle of the article is “After eight years of political ostracism, stem-cell scientists like Harvard’s Douglas Melton are coming back into the light—and making discoveries that may soon bring lifesaving breakthroughs.” Time Feb 9, 2009 at p. 36.

Now, let’s examine that for a second—In Massachusetts, where Prof. Melton plies his craft, the Commonwealth and State of Massachusetts, like the State of California, has voted state support of stem-cell research at institutions of higher education. Therefore in Massachusetts, like California a bastion of biotechnology, the biotech lobby was able to secure state support for stem-cell research during the eight-year long federal ban on such research. So compared to the other 48 states, Prof. Melton was actually at an advantage because his lab was in Massachusetts.

Because of the federal funds ban, a great deal of stem cell-research has begun to spring up in places like Southeast Asia, as the Time Magazine article correctly notes, and as it well-known in the biotech industry. But a lot of it is also staying put in Cali and Mass due to those states putting up seed money for biotech research that is stem cell oriented.

Next, Prof. Melton works as co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI), which Harvard has committed substantial resources to supporting over the past eight years and well into the future. According to their 2008 report, their annual spending has grown in the past two years from just over $5 million to over $16 million in fiscal year 2008, most of that culled from private and corporate donations. HSCI currently has no less than eight ongoing challenge grant research projects sponsored for $75,000 each, all of them stem cell oriented.

Now I am a powerful supporter of stem-cell research, and I strongly advocate that the federal government support stem cell research. The question I have for Time Magazine is, and maybe perhaps for the Federal Government, is HSCI the most needy recipient for federal funds for stem cell research? The article omits that HSCI is well-funded by private donors, and omits that Massachusetts provides state support (it is not clear if HSCI accepts Massachusetts money) and therefore the article in Time is somewhat misleading.

The argument for funding HSCI federally has to be this; we, e.g. HSCI, made a good faith effort to get the ball rolling the past three years through private financing, we have already a lab in motion with research projects, so if you fund us, we will be three years closer to getting results than any other academic lab you choose to fun. Consequently, their NIH grant requests will carry a certain heft.

On the other hand, they are not as dramatically in need of the money as some other labs who don’t have any private funding at all.

A more useful article would have been to depict the overall situation in the rest of the United States, and some of the labs outside CA & MA.

This is an interesting issue and one on which arguments on both sides would and could be marshalled.

It should be pointed out that I strongly support the work of Prof. Melton and the work of HSCI. Those initiatives were put into place by then President Lawrence Summers, along with the Broad Institute initiative, a few years back, and clearly they have had the effect of putting Harvard back on the map in terms of genetics and molecular biology research.

The good news about the Time article is that the words “Stem Cells” made the cover, along with a nice bio-photo. If nothing else, Americans this week can forget about the economy and the war for a moment and realize that stem cell research is an answer to many of our problems that don’t involve boundaries and account balances and fumes spewing out of our cars.

–art kyriazis philly/south jersey
home of the world champion phillies

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