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The Stem-Cell Wars

Robert Goldberg, Ph.D.
New York Post
August 11, 2004

John Kerry claims that President Bush, by restricting federal funding of research on stem cells from human embryos, has attacked medical progress.

In America, says Kerry, "We don't sacrifice science for ideology. We are a land of discovery - a place where innovators and optimists are free to dream and explore. Where government encourages creativity and entrepreneurship instead of stifling it."

Yet Kerry himself is far more hostile to medical progress on every other front. His policies are far worse for patients who hope for new medicines - even ones from stem cells - to prevent or end their suffering.

First off, the public debate has focused exclusively on one narrow issue - the president's "ban" on federal funding of research that uses "new" lines of cells from human embryos. Yet Bush has increased federal funding on research involving stem cells from placentas, adults and animals.

And while Kerry would lift that restriction, he'd retain some strict ethical limits - such as confining research to embryos that were going to be destroyed in any event.

Second, all stem-cell research is only one promising possible road to medical breakthroughs. The goal of such research is to learn how to trigger the regeneration of specific types of tissues to treat specific diseases. But even critics of the ban know any such payoff is a long way off.

Many other scientific opportunities are more likely to help more people sooner. Focusing on stem-cell research to the exclusion of every other scientific opportunity, including those that are closer at hand, is scientifically irresponsible.

Third, federal funding is only part of the picture. With $20 billion a year in research funding, the National Institute of Health is important. But so too is the nearly $60 billion in money invested by pharmaceutical, biotech and venture-capital firms on cutting-edge treatments for cancer, Alzheimer's, AIDS, mental illness and heart disease.

If Kerry wins the White House, we will get more funding for stem-cell research. But other money would come out of the R&D pipeline, because his other policies could stifle the creativity and entrepreneurship that he praises - and which are vital to actually producing real cures:

* Kerry wants Medicare to impose price controls on prescription drugs. This would delay and ration the elderly's use of breakthrough drugs and ultimately let the government control what drugs they can take. In Europe over the past 10 years, similar restrictions have caused the development of new drugs to stall. From 1993 to 1997, Europe launched 81 breakthrough drugs; from 1998 to 2002, just 44. Meanwhile, U.S. launches jumped from 48 to 85.

* To control costs, Kerry would also have Medicare become a direct purchaser of drugs. But we know this will shut down innovation. The Clinton administration made the government the nation's biggest purchaser of pediatric vaccines, and used that power to freeze prices. The result: shortages of shots and plummeting investment in R&D for new childhood vaccines.

* Kerry has also backed de facto price controls by favoring laws to allow the "reimportation" of prescription drugs. In essence, this is an effort to force every pharmaceutical and biotech company to sell drugs here at the controlled prices imposed in Canada and Europe.

Yet these are the same price controls that shut down medical innovation in those nations - companies sell their wares there for a small profit, but they don't risk the money to develop new life-savers for those markets. If reimportation worked to force down prices here, it would also shut down the innovation Kerry claims to favor.

When Swiss-based Novartis shifted its worldwide research operations (and all the high-paying jobs that go with it) to America, the company's chairman said the draw was "the profitability of the U.S. market." If Kerry imports Europe's price controls, he will crush a big part of America's biomedical enterprise and outsource the rest to India, China and Korea.

* Kerry has supported price controls for drugs developed with help from the National Institute of Health. In the Clinton years, the NIH started writing conditions into its grants and technology-licensing agreements: If regulators decided that drugs developed with NIH help were overpriced, the government would have the right to take over the patent. The result? Researchers in universities and companies stopped working with the government. When the patent and price threat was eliminated, the cooperation came back.

* Kerry rightly is concerned about people suffering with rare diseases waiting for cures. But he and his Democrat colleagues have opposed the administration's effort to speed up the approval of drugs to treat cancer, AIDS, infectious diseases and spinal-cord injury by having the Food and Drug Administration encourage the use of 21st century science to determine if new medicines work. The reason: The Dems score more political points sticking it to drug and biotech companies than standing shoulder to shoulder with dying patients.

The Bush restrictions on stem-cell funding must be viewed in the context of Kerry's attack on private investment and his support for a go-slow FDA approach, contrasted with Bush's willingness to sustain private investment and speed up FDA approval of stem-cell-based therapies. Under which president does medical progress and stem-cell research get the bigger boost?

Robert M. Goldberg is director of the Manhattan Institute's Center for Medical Progress.

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