Last week, as the 2012 election season heated up, three researchers reported on American attitudes toward federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.
Their conclusion: If American politicians listen to majority opinion, federal funding for stem cell funding is more secure than if they heed the party lines, in which case the field may be in for more turmoil.
Robert J. Blendon, Minah Kang Kim and John M. Benson, all affiliated with the Harvard School of Public Health, wrote the perspective article, which was published in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine. The piece described a polling review project sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Funding for embryonic stem cell research -- which scientists hope one day will contribute to cures for ailments including spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's disease and diabetes -- has been a political flashpoint for more than a decade. In 2001, former President George W. Bush froze federal funding on research that would require destroying embryos to create new stem cell lines. In 2009, President Barack Obama lifted the restrictions, and federal courts upheld his action. But the new campaign "has once again raised uncertainty about such funding," the coauthors wrote.
Examining data from eight opinion polls from the last two years, the team looked at overall public opinion on federal funding for stem cell research, breaking out Americans' views by political party.
In one poll of Americans, 62% said they believed that medical research involving stem cells obtained from human embryos was morally acceptable; 30% said it was not. In another poll, 55% said the government should fund research that would use newly created embryonic stem cells.
But, the researchers added, when party affiliation was included in the analysis, Republicans were always less supportive of the research than Democrats. People who are religious were also much more likely to oppose embryonic stem cell studies. Republicans were more likely to attend religious services at least weekly than Democrats. Similarly, Americans who attend religous services at least weekly were more likely to vote for Republicans.
"The analysis suggests that if the leaders of the two political parties focus mostly on responding to their own adherents' views, their differences could affect future federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, depending on the outcome of the 2012 election. Alternatively, if they focus their policy positions more on the views of the broader U.S. public, future federal research funding is likely to be secure regardless of which party wins the election," the authors wrote.
That could have ramifications for medicine. Just this week, the first FDA-approved clinical trial of a therapy derived from embryonic stem cells (Geron Corp.'s GRNOPC1, a treatment for spinal cord injuries), was called off because private sector funding for research is tight these days. If federal funding for embryonic stem cell research is again removed, it could further delay the search for cures along this avenue.
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