Get ready—soon your patients will be asking you questions like these: “I’ve heard that stem cells can cure diabetes; could they cure me?” “Can stem cells heal my heart disease?” “My mom’s Alzheimer’s is getting worse fast—could stem cells help?” and “Should I bank my baby’s umbilical-cord blood so she won’t need a blood donor if she gets leukemia?”
Adult stem cells are already being used in several types of therapy and, ethical concerns notwithstanding, embryonic stem-cell therapies may be part of our not-too-distant future. This is really very exciting; after all, the whole point of science is to pursue the unknown. I believe that American scientistsshould pursue any new technology that may provide cures in the future.
But government shouldn’t foot the bill. That’s because anything funded through the government is subject to political whim. Legislators make promises so they can tell constituents they’re in favor of something. But when it comes to implementation, those who oppose the legislation can file suit or find other ways to hold up the project.
Case in point: More than two years ago, lawmakers in California passed legislation to fund $3 billion for stem-cell research. Since then, not a penny has been spent on research authorized by that public initiative. The money now being spent in California—mostly on building infrastructure and training scientists rather than actual research—is cash the state borrowed from its own general fund or from private citizens in anticipation of the bond issue that was authorized.
If private and philanthropic sources step up to the plate, on the other hand, really good things can happen. When Missouri lawmakers made it a constitutional right to perform all types of stem-cell research in that state, the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City was free to put its $2 billion in resources to work on projects that now include embryonic stem-cell research.
Where does Stowers’ funding come from? From those who really want to spend their money on finding cures for diseases like cancer—private philanthropists and families hoping for a cure for Aunt Jane. Other research is funded by private business and investors hoping high-tech cures will bring them financial success.
This private approach erases the problems that ensue when the government spends tax dollars collected from people who object to how they’re spent. No one who objects on moral or other grounds needs to fork over a cent.
There are some things it makes sense for government to fund — national defense and police protection, for example. The difference is that there’s universal interest in protecting Americans from foreign aggression and domestic crime. Stem-cell research, however, is experimental and controversial.
What does this mean for primary-care practitioners (PCPs)? If stem-cell research really takes off, the whole field of medicine may change. Someday, we may be treating an array of diseases by injecting stem cells. We’re not there yet, of course; most stem-cell treatments are still experimental. But PCPs should be aware of developments so they can best help their patients, even if it is to say, “We’re not quite there yet.”
But PCPs—and everyone else — should only donate money to stem-cell research if they believe in its potential. Otherwise, they should let others put their chips on the table — and spend their own money on something else. New stethoscopes, anyone?