Science and Politics

We Are Facing a Severe Backlash

Interview David Anderson

Research on stem cells in the USA is under pressure. While the patients are expecting to benefit from effective therapies in the near future, conservative politicians want severe restrictions imposed on research. Stem cell researcher David Anderson on his discipline, which has turned into a political issue.

Kosmos: Stem cell research is at the centre of a highly controversial debate not only in science but also in politics, particularly in the United States. What makes this field of research so fascinating for politicians?

Anderson: I think this all focuses on the issue of abortion. It influences policies in our country because the Republican Party has a very strong constituency among the religious right. One objective of that political group is to overturn the constitutional right to abortion. Anything that touches on that - in science or public policy - immediately stirs up agitation. Since stem cell research relates to embryos and embryos are associated with abortion in most people's minds, for this group stem cell research equals abortion. That is the equation that the opposition to this research has painted in people's minds.

Kosmos: Fierce restrictions on research are underway. The Human Cloning Prohibition Act was introduced in Senate in 2001 and is still pending. Is this a Sword of Damocles hanging over your discipline?

Anderson: Everybody, including all the scientists, wants a law to prohibit reproductive cloning, which could be used to produce human offspring that are identical copies of their parent. The issue is whether the technology used in that procedure - nuclear transfer - can still be used for stem cell research. Even on the Republican side there are some moderates who are sufficiently in favour of embryonic stem cell research that they would vote against the most extreme version of the Act. But it's been back and forth now for at least five years. So, the question is whether this debate will go on so long that somebody will try to do reproductive cloning just because there is no law currently preventing it. And that would trigger a real backlash in public opinion.

Kosmos: Don't politicians argue that America might lose ground in international scientific competition, if people like you are forced to research outside the country? At least in Germany this argument often comes when the state seeks to limit research in this field.

Anderson: We have already lost some of our prominent stem cell researchers to other countries, for instance to the United Kingdom. I think that argument just doesn't work with the strong opponents of stem cell research because they just don't want to see that kind of research going on in the country at all. And if some people have to leave - well, good luck, and do it some place else. It's unfortunate, but the whole attitude towards science is so antagonistic right now in the Bush administration that the brain drain is not a very strong argument.

Kosmos: The Clinton administration was more open to stem cell research ...

“We have already lost some of our prominent stem cell researchers to other countries.”

Anderson: ... oh yes, and to research in general. Between 1998 and 2003, that includes the Clinton and a little bit of the Bush administration, the budget for the National Institute of Health, which is the largest government federal research funding agency in the country, doubled. But this year, for the first time, it has actually been cut.

Kosmos: What is the reason for the political scepticism your research currently faces? Is it because stem cell research touches personal moral beliefs more than other fields of science?

Anderson: I don't know how much of it is personal beliefs or just a calculated political decision. But I think that one of the core constituencies of the current administration consists of religious fundamentalists. The whole idea that life begins at conception - I mean this is essentially a view held in the Catholic church, but it is not true for Judaism, it is not true for Islam, and it is certainly not true for all religions. That's an example of taking one small group's point of view and turning it into a benchmark for research policy that ultimately affects all of society. It is because that group is powerful and has a lot of money and political influence that I think the Bush administration accommodates them.

Kosmos: This sounds a bit like a conspiracy theory.

Anderson: Maybe, but let me give you an example of the governent's influence on other branches of science. Recently, a vaccine against the human papilloma virus was found and licensed as a medicine. The virus is the main cause of cervical cancer. This is the first time that molecular biology has succeeded in making a vaccine against cancer! But in the Bush administration there were serious attempts to prevent the licensing of this vaccine by the Food and Drug Administration. They were against it because they equate the human papilloma virus with sexual promiscuity among unmarried women. So they see any medicine that could be used to treat sexually transmitted diseases as something that would encourage sexual promiscuity. Therefore they would rather not have the treatment and use instead the risk of death from the disease as an incentive for abstinence, which is their solution to the problem: just don't do it. That is the level at which decisions are being made.

Kosmos: Is there a risk that scientists may be tempted to promise more than they can deliver, just in order to overcome the obstacles? Craig Venter and his Human Genome Project come to mind.

Anderson: This can be a danger. But when you are attacked by someone who is saying that this research is immoral and it should be stopped, you are really driven to find a counterargument. So you point to its potential use. But people don't realise the timeline. If you say, yes, it has the potential to save lives but it will take 10 or 15 years, then someone could say, well, why don't you just stop and someone will find another way in the meantime.

Kosmos: You are trying to take this step from research to therapy as the co-founder of a stem cell company, StemCells, Inc.  

Anderson: Yes, it specialises in brain stem cells. We have initiated a clinical trial to treat a lysosomal storage disease. There is always a tension between the need to actually test a therapy - and if anything is ever going to work you have to test it eventually - and the worry that if you do it too soon, before you have checked every possible risk, it might lead to a tragedy ...

Kosmos: ... like the case of Jesse Gelsinger, the 18-year-old who died in December 1999 in a gene therapy trial at the University of Pennsylvania.

Anderson: This is what worries me most in stem cell research: that people will try out therapy prematurely and some patient will die, like Jesse Gelsinger. This was a serious setback for gene therapy, which was five years ahead of where we are now in stem cell therapy. If the same thing happened in stem cell research it could really be a disaster.

Kosmos: The State of California is planning a huge amount of funding for stem cell research, three billion dollars in ten years. How come this contradiction between the ban the Federal Government is planning and Californian support?

Anderson: In California we have a voter-sponsored initiative system. That means, if a group has enough money and can get enough signatures, they can propose a law, or a spending measure and put it on the ballot. This happened during the presidential election in 2004 with the so-called Proposition 71 in support of stem cell research. In the end, Governor Schwarzenegger came out in support of it, even though he is a Republican, and it passed by 60 percent. So this means three billion dollars will have to be spent on stem cell research during the next ten years, especially on research that cannot be funded with federal money, such as making new human embryonic stem cell lines and doing human nuclear transfer experiments.

Kosmos: That is a remarkable sign of public support for your research ...

Anderson: Yes, but unfortunately it is not so easy. There is an opposition group which immediately filed a lawsuit to stop this money from going through. After a year and a half, the suit finally reached the courts, and has since been ruled against. Now the opponents want to lodge an appeal before the California Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the public are looking at the clock. And if we can't come up with a therapy in a few years time, it is not going to be very helpful to argue that the money was delayed for a year and a half. People will only remember that they voted in November 2004 and when 2010 comes around and there are still no treatments in the clinic, there could be a backlash against the scientists.

“The hunt for media attention and thus more funding has a negative influence not only on scientists, but on scientific journals, too.”

Kosmos: The more money, the higher the pressure to deliver results - and the higher the temptation to cheat? Could the fraud of Korean cloning researcher Hwang be only one case in a long series to come?

Anderson: I have already seen several examples that are not reproducible or are misinterpreted. This is not necessarily fraudulent. But I have never seen this so often in any other field I have worked in. I think part of this comes from the hunt for media attention and thus more funding. This has a negative influence not only on scientists, but on scientific journals, because the top journals like Science, Nature and Cell judge their success by whether the articles they publish are reported in the popular press, like the New York Times, Washington Post or Wall Street Journal. They are more likely to publish a paper, even if the reviewers object, if they think it is going to get a lot of attention. Because they say, well, it will eventually be figured out anyway by other scientists. Whatever, I am not sure if there are going to be many more cases of falsification because the scrutiny will be very high now.

Kosmos: How many years of stem cell research do you think will be necessary to produce a therapy for a concrete disease, let's say diabetes?

Anderson: I think within the next five to seven years there is likely to be at least one treatment in the clinic using the stem cells from human tissue. If we can achieve that, then I think it will convince society that this really is a new kind of medicine and that we should continue to support it.


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David Anderson David Anderson

Professor Dr. David Anderson teaches neurobiology at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, USA. In 2006, he received the Humboldt Research Award and engaged in research at the Theodor Boveri Institute at Würzburg University.

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