Stem cell research is a truly global endeavor.
How will America’s role evolve in this field and other areas of biomedical research?
Because of politic, legal, and budgetary reasons, there are growing concerns that the U.S. may find itself 2nd rate for stem cell research and perhaps also for other fields of science as well. Being a global super power as a country overall and controlling our own fate, means being a science super power. When politics and extreme ideology get in the way of science, America becomes just that much weaker. A good example is stem cell research.
While, I would argue that the most exciting event in stem cell research for the past decade was the discovery of iPS cells by Shinya Yamanaka in Japan, I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that U.S. institutions are currently collectively top notch in stem cell research in terms of total impact on the field including high impact publications. But this could easily change, especially if funding for stem cell research in the U.S. is sharply reduced and if state and federal laws ban important elements of stem cell research.
Imagine the year 2021, ten years from now when the U.S. is 2nd rate for not only stem cell research, but science more generally. If we take a look at the possible future of stem cell research in the U.S., we can learn something about what may happen to science more generally.
In that future, embryonic stem cell research, no matter what the funding source, is illegal by state law in one third of the states. Those of us fortunate enough to be in California may lose the wonderful research supported by CIRM funding well before 2021 if its funding is not extended by the voters.
Federal law, per a Supreme Court ruling, has barred all federal funding of ES cell research. Most academic stem cell scientists in the U.S. have stopped studying ES cells or have moved abroad where the research is not only legal, but is also strongly supported by federal funding in many countries. iPS cell research continues to excite, but it has become clear that it can only potentially supplant ES cells for certain diseases and the process of translating iPS cells to the clinic is at least 5 years behind hESC.
Leading the stem cell field are a longitutidinally united group of countries including China, Japan, Singapore, Korea, and Australia.
Americans seeking stem cell-based treatments for a host of conditions must go outside the U.S. for such treatments. As a result, the term “stem cell tourism” has been turned on its head. In 2011, it meant Americans and others traveling to other countries for dubious stem cell treatments. Now in 2021, it means Americans and others traveling to the countries now leading the field. Americans are going to those places for legitimate, safe and effective stem cell treatments that are, because of politics, not available in the U.S.
Big pharma has refocused its stem cell research geographically away from the U.S., while still hoping to generate big bucks from American patients treated outside the U.S.
Stem cell treatments for wounded soldiers have become realities, but the U.S. is behind the curve due to restrictions on research.
This potential future a decade from now is not so outlandish. Political extremists now have remarkable influence on the Republican Party. The stakes for the U.S. and the world are high.
One of the few things the U.S. still exports to the rest of the world is technology, and without science that pipeline will dry up. As we contemplate the next year’s federal budget (today Congress just passed a compromise budget for the current fiscal year with only modest cuts in research funding), we must have a vision for the future. I am not an advocate of the U.S. running enormous budget deficits, but cutting funding for research is like shooting ourselves in the foot. Scientific research, including biomedical research and stem cell research funded by NIH, is a net money maker for America.
Where will we be in 10 years? I don’t know, but I hope the potential future outlined above does not come to pass. However, scientists throughout diverse fields worry about that possible future.