Susan Collins

Stem Cell Research Holds Promise - June 10, 2006

Susan Collins
June 10, 2006
Weekly Column
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Millions of Americans suffer from diabetes, cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, and a host of other diseases or conditions that affect their quality of life. Embryonic stem cell research holds the potential to save lives and to restore quality of life for people living with such diseases and conditions. With such promising research at our fingertips, we must explore its potential. This research offers great hope for our seniors, but it will not just benefit the elderly. This research offers the possibility of recovery or better treatment to people of all ages who have suffered devastating spinal cord injuries, such as the late Christopher Reeves who spent the last years of his life fighting for advancements in stem cell research. As the founder and co-Chair of the Senate Diabetes Caucus, I am particularly hopeful that stem cell research may hold a cure for juvenile diabetes. This disease affects more than one million American children and their families. Also known as Type 1 diabetes, this disease condemns far too many children to a future of serious health problems--heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, blindness, and amputation. We cannot ignore the potential that stem cell therapy holds for these young people. Our country is currently engaged in a great debate over whether vital stem cell research can proceed at a vigorous pace given the Administration’s decision to restrict federal funding for research only to those embryonic stem cell lines in existence before August 2001. Many scientists contend that these embryonic lines are contaminated with mouse cells, and thus are severely compromised in their potential therapeutic value for humans. The promise of stem cells lies in their ability to develop into a variety of other cells. They may have the potential to generate insulin-producing islet cells for patients with juvenile diabetes; neurons to treat Parkinson’s disease, ALS, Alzheimer’s disease, and repair spinal cord damage; and bone marrow cells to treat cancer. Stem cells could also be used to test the safety and efficacy of new drug treatments. Embryonic stem cells can be derived from cell clusters that are left over from the in vitro fertilization (IVF) process, and that would otherwise be discarded. I have long been a supporter of stem cell research, and have urged the President to expand current federal policy concerning stem cell research. The Senate Special Committee on Aging, of which I am a member, recently held a hearing to explore the promise of stem cell research. We heard from five expert witnesses who strongly support embryonic stem cell research. One of these witnesses was Chris Dudley, known to many people for playing center for the Portland Trailblazers. What he is less known for is achieving this goal while living with Type 1 diabetes. Chris was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of 16, and knows firsthand the financial, physical, and emotional costs of diabetes. Chris is now a diabetes advocate, supporting embryonic stem cell research to help prevent and find a cure for diabetes and running a summer camp for children with diabetes. To advance stem cell research, I have co-sponsored the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which lifts the current restrictions in order to allow stem cell lines to be eligible for federally funded research regardless of the date on which they were derived. In addition, the bill institutes strong ethical requirements on stem cell lines that are eligible for federally-funded research. It is my hope that this bill will be considered by the full Senate in the near future. In May, the House of Representatives passed a similar bill, which takes an important step in the advancement of stem cell research. The legislation passed in the House would expand the current restriction on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to the more than 400,000 cells unused in fertility clinics that would be made available by willing donors. Stem cell research is often portrayed as a choice between scientific advancement and medical ethics. I believe this is a false choice. I believe we can advance this vital research and, at the same time, maintain the highest ethical standards. I have been encouraged by the promise of many types of stem cell research and believe it may be the key to unlocking the cures for a number of diseases. And I will continue to support expanded access to this vital research.