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Stem cells and a new brain drain


by Jeffrey P. Kahn, Ph.D., M.P.H.
Director, Center for Bioethics
University of Minnesota

A brain drain from the United States might be on.

One of the nation's leading stem cell researchers announced last week that he was leaving the University of California, San Francisco -- one of the premier biomedical research centers in the country -- for the University of Cambridge in England. Part of the reason is that the British regulatory environment for stem cell research is far more permissive than U.S. regulations are likely to be, and is certainly more so than the current U.S. ban on federal funding for such research.

The British might be justified in feeling that it's just desserts for U.S. researchers to be lured to the UK, given the flow of academics over the last 20 years mostly in the opposite direction. What does this reverse brain drain tell us about stem cell research in the United States, as a decision from the Bush administration draws near?

America the strict?

U.S. restrictions ban any federal funding for research that harms or destroys human embryos -- rules that have been in place since the early 1980s. However, just prior to the 2000 election, the Clinton administration issued an order that would allow federal funding of stem cell research so long as the stem cells were harvested from embryos using private funds. That policy was never enacted and President Bush now is under pressure to decide whether the government will fund embryonic stem cell research and, if so, with what restrictions. Some observers predict that, if research is allowed to proceed, it will be under very limited conditions, such as using existing collections of stem cells only.

Whatever the decision, it likely will be not be as permissive as the UK's. There researchers may use not only embryos left over from in vitro fertilization, but are allowed to create human embryos, even cloned embryos and the stem cells they contain, for research purposes. This so-called therapeutic cloning will become more important as research progresses. Using stem cells to treat diabetes and spinal cord injury, or to grow organs for transplant, will require cells that are immunologically matched to the patient. The easiest, though most controversial, way to get them is to clone an embryo from the patient, from which stem cells could be collected. This step likely is years or even decades down the road, but research toward it would be hampered by a policy that bans creation of embryos or therapeutic cloning.

The value of central authority

There is no question that the United States is the engine for biomedical research worldwide, with substantial public resources devoted to both basic and applied research. But resources can't overcome restrictive research policies, and scientists will go to more permissive environments, even if there are fewer resources available.

The UK is able to take a more permissive approach because of a stronger central authority to monitor and oversee research that involves human embryos. Unlike in the United States, where such research is by law pushed into the private sector and largely out of the reach of public oversight, the UK controls all use and creation of human embryos through the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA). It is a clear example of how public funding can serve as a tool to oversee a controversial technology and prevent its potential misuse.

The irony in all this is hard to ignore. As the U.S. celebrates the 225th anniversary of its freedom from the repression of British colonial rule, researchers are fleeing what many see as overly puritanical restrictions from Washington. So from the perspective of stem cell research, which country most deserves to be called the land of the free and the home of the brave? Researchers are beginning to vote with their feet.

Visit the
"Ethics Matters" Archive
where you'll find other columns from Jeffrey Kahn
on a wide range of bioethics topics.

"Ethics Matters" is a biweekly feature from the
Center for Bioethics and CNN Interactive.



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