Embryonic stem cell research is an issue that has been on the minds of Michiganders for many months now. After the battle to pass Proposal 2 in the last election, we’ve all had a longer opportunity to consider this issue than most people in the U.S. On Monday, President Barack Obama lifted the restrictions on federal funding for stem cell research. This move will once again bring the issue to the forefront of American politics. As the debate heats up again, it is important to understand the science and the reality of stem cell research.

Since the creation of a human embryonic stem cell line in 1998 by University of Wisconsin researcher Dr. James Thompson, there has been an ongoing debate regarding the ethical use of these cells. A stem cell has the extraordinary potential to develop into various cell types, providing the basic recipe for life. These starter cells are found in several places within the body, most notably as embryonic and adult stem cells. Research continues to be conducted on adult stem cells, but the scientific understanding of these cells remains less advanced than that of embryonic stem cells.

While embryonic stem cells have the potential to become any of the 220 different cell types, adult stem cells are restricted in their differentiation to only a handful of those types. Many researchers believe that embryonic stem cells hold the answers to solving some of the most debilitating medical conditions, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s Disease and diabetes. But since proper funding has not been allocated to this field of research, U.S. scientists have been lagging behind in the worldwide effort to uncover these solutions.

Stem cells are often donated to research as a result of in-vitro clinics’ surpluses. In-vitro clinics have provided thousands of hopeful women and couples with the chance to be parents. This opportunity typically is achieved by creating several embryos in the laboratory and transferring two or three to the women in the hopes that one will survive. It often takes months and multiple attempts for an egg to survive. Regardless of the outcome, the unpredictability of the human womb most often results in an excess number of embryos. Similar to the fate of the transferred embryos that didn’t survive, these embryos are discarded or frozen indefinitely. Either way, these cells are no longer used – unless they are donated to stem cell research.

Despite the important medical breakthroughs that could come from embryonic stem cell research, the Bush administration was committed to slowing this progress. The ban imposed by President George Bush in 2001 limited federal funding only to existing embryonic stem cell lines, all of which were contaminated. This has proven to be a major hindrance to researchers across the nation – especially in Michigan, where the ban was compounded by strict state laws regarding embryonic stem cell research until Proposal 2 passed in 2008.

Nations around the world have been advancing their understanding of embryonic stem cells, while researchers in the U.S. have been limited by restrictive policies. But thanks to Obama’s recent decision to make embryonic stem cell research more financially viable, the U.S. has an opportunity to expand research in this critical medical field.

Taylor Johnson and Kristin Goddard are members of the Roosevelt Institution’s Center on Health Care Policy.

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