President George W. Bush believes that it is wrong to kill one human being in order to save another. However, his attempt to thread the ethical needle with his decision on the delicate stem-cell issue likely will have some unfortunate unintended consequences.

His decision cracked the door on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, but only far enough to allow public money to flow to those working with cell lines that were developed before his Aug. 9 announcement. Therefore, his decision likely will make billions for individuals, corporations, universities and foundations that hope to profit from the dastardly deed he abhors.

Embryonic stem-cell research, unlike other forms of stem-cell research, takes the life of its donors. They are only days old but tiny human beings just the same. Stem-cell research done with cells taken from umbilical cords, placentas and adults already has led to important medical breakthroughs that are healing patients. This research is non-controversial because it does no harm to donors.

Why cross this ethical line of sacrificing some individuals in order to save others when conventional stem cell research has been so successful? Scientists involved in embryonic stem-cell research hope they can coax these cells into becoming any kind of cell or tissue. In other words, if their theory pans out, they could create replacement tissue grown to order.

Can you imagine what this designer tissue could be worth on the open market? It staggers the imagination! Even if none of this works, those lucky enough to hold the keys to the 60 known embryonic stem-cell lines in existence at the time Bush made his announcement now have geese capable of laying golden taxpayer-funded eggs.

It doesn’t matter whether any of those eggs hatch or not, they are tickets to free money, money that will pay handsome salaries to researchers and their support staffs for years to come. The CEOs of the companies doing this research will get richer and richer and so will those scientists whose work shows the slightest bit of promise. But the biggest winners of all are the individuals, foundations and corporations that control the flow of these stem-cell lines. Bush unwillingly has become their fairy godmother.

No one knows just how much taxpayer money will be provided for this research. Currently, “we the people” are providing $256 million a year for other types of stem-cell research. With many scientists predicting that embryonic stem cells will provide cures for everything from Parkinson’s to spinal injuries to in-growing toenails, it is expected to be a hefty sum.

What generally is not understood by the public is that even though many people in the scientific and medical communities consider embryonic stem-cell research to be unethical, there is no law that has prevented the private sector from doing this type of research. Biotech companies are very popular with investors. On the day of the Bush announcement, the stocks of companies already involved in this research jumped 16 to 36 percent. On the day after the announcement, they predictably went down, with the uncertainty over how all of this will play out.

It is interesting that the biggest winner in the United States appears to be the university that holds the patent on the human embryonic stem cell, which just happens to be in the state where our secretary of Health and Human Services served as governor. Can we be surprised that Tommy G. Thompson has been the leading cheerleader for government funded embryonic stem-cell research and shamelessly has pushed the president in that direction? While there appears to be no direct conflict of interest, many of Thompson’s good buddies back at the University of Wisconsin are the leading beneficiaries of this decision. Equally interesting is the fact that the patent was granted just five months ago on March 13.

At the time of the Bush announcement, WiCell Inc., a nonprofit group that provides stem cells from the five lines managed by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, was selling those stem cells for $5,000 a pop. Now that each one is capable of shaking loose millions of taxpayer dollars, the sky is the limit!

It is important to keep in mind that private companies do not need government incentives to fund research to find cures for diseases. It will go on as long as drug companies are allowed to make a profit on their discoveries. However, government-funded research is a lose-lose situation for taxpayers. If we provide the funds and the research doesn’t produce anything, we lose. If it does produces a cure, we still lose because the company that discovers the cure gets to keep all the money.

With all this free money thrown into the mix, the battle over who will be allowed to profit from this research has begun in earnest. Last week, WARF bit the hand that had been feeding the embryonic stem-cell effort at the University of Wisconsin, filing a lawsuit against Geron Corp. Geron of Menlo Park, Calif., had contributed roughly $1 million to the Wisconsin effort and believed it had exclusive rights to products that could be developed from the cells. However, the university claims the rights given to Geron are limited to only six types of cells that can be grown from its lines and is anxious to sell the rights for additional stem-cell types.

While the National Institutes of Health is getting ready to rain an untold amount of taxpayer dollars on this parade, it has little or no control over who gets the cells that Mr. Bush just turned into golden nuggets. The NIH will be meeting with representatives from WARF this week in an effort to encourage the university to do the right thing.

The United States is the only nation to have issued a patent on human embryonic stem cells and the patent is valid only in this country. The University of Wisconsin has applied for patents in Europe and at least two foreign biotech companies, who have cell lines that would qualify under the Bush guidelines, have applied for patents here.

One of those companies, BresaGen of Australia, has developed four cell lines and has opened a lab in Athens, Ga. BresaGen has let it be known that it is prepared to enter the legal fray, if necessary, in order to prove that the University of Wisconsin’s rights are not absolute. This could take years. Other unintended consequences to Mr. Bush’s decision might be to enrich trial lawyers and to force this research offshore.

Another formidable problem is that scientists do not have the ability to positively track the cells that are developed from lines that are eligible for the federal grants. Sure, you can label the container that houses the cells, but the Bush decision opens the door for stem-cell counterfeiting.

Lastly, it seems that Mr. Bush unintentionally may have relaxed the rules that were in place under President Clinton on embryo procurement. Under the Bush plan, donors at fertility clinics must give “proper informed consent.” What does that mean? Under President Clinton the rules specified that consent documents must use specific wording to ensure that couples did not feel coerced to donate their embryos.

Also, Mr. Clinton’s rules allowed only frozen embryos to be donated so that couples would have time to think it over and could not be pressured to sign a consent form at the time they were undergoing the in vitro fertilization process.

I do not doubt that President Bush is sincere in his desire to protect innocent human life. Unfortunately, his stem-cell decision was not as well grounded or as well thought out as some have proclaimed. This decision has been compared to one rendered by King Solomon. However, when you consider all of these unintended consequences, it looks more like it came from one of the characters in the nightmarishly impersonal world of Franz Kafka.


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