Those Magnificent Men in their Laboratory Coats

Posted: Apr 13, 2007 12:00 AM
Those Magnificent Men in their Laboratory Coats

Everywhere you turn these days some legislator is introducing a bill to turn the American taxpayer into an unwitting or unwilling investor. Governments federal, state and local are raising to an art form the idea that no business idea is bad enough that it can't be financed with tax revenue extorted from the people. If you doubt this, consider the quandary of government-sponsored research on human embryos.

This week the U.S. Senate took up and passed a measure that will provide federal funds for research involving human embryonic stem cells. President Bush pledged to veto the measure.

The heart of the issue could be the ethical challenges posed by such research, because in its current form it involves harvesting cells from days-old human beings that are killed in the process. This is not the heart of the issue, however, because the Senate didn't debate whether to permit or ban such research. It is permitted under federal law and court rulings that have basically held that the human being before birth is not a person entitled to legal protection.

Instead, the heart of the issue is whether taxpayer dollars should be funneled to these scientific enterprises. Since his national address on August 9, 2001, when President Bush announced that the government would provide stem cells for research using cell lines that were already in existence as of that date, researchers around the country have had access to embryonic stem cells but no federal financial incentive to kill more embryos for their experiments. President Bush drew a morally significant line in the sand that day, but he drew an economically significant one as well.

In a vibrant free market economy like that of the United States, the government is tempted to fund only marginal and fringe business propositions because the ones that have real prospects for success don't generally lack for capital. Think about it for a moment: if a research group in the United States really were just years away from a cure for a malady like juvenile diabetes, would it have any difficulty, given the number of prospective beneficiaries, in raising the venture capital it needed to solve the problem?

Instead, what we see is a parade of efforts to pay for these experiments from the public purse. At the federal level, there is the Castle-DeGette-Specter bill that would open the U.S. Treasury to the financing of more embryonic stem cell lines. Among the states, California voters have authorized $3 billion in bonds over 10 years to pay for embryo destruction and cloning. The Maryland legislature has passed a bill that will devote $15 million to embryo stem cell funding in its first year. New Jersey's embryonic stem cell advocates passed a law last December to spend $270 million on bricks-and-mortar for such research, and this year they plan to come back for a similar amount for related work.

One stock analyst described for private investors the hazards of investing their own money in these projects. Writing at the online service About: Stocks, analyst Ken Little said, "You should acknowledge this technology may be years from producing commercial products. This is not cutting edge, this is bleeding edge." No one knows, he concludes, "when or if" the day will come when such research leads to "miracle cures."

In the meantime, adult stem cell research and therapies (there are no human therapies available today based on embryonic stem cells, nor even any animal trials involving such therapies) are racing ahead and attracting both private and, in a few cases, some public funding. More than 70 human conditions have been treated using adult stem cell-based approaches, with word just this week from the United Kingdom that researchers there have been able to grow replacement heart valves in the laboratory. Animal trials are next, and if they succeed, these fully human, manufactured valves could be ready for patients in three to five years.

History, closely observed, reminds us how the spirit of entrepreneurship really thrives. If biomedical research is the frontier of science in the 21st century, heavier-than-air, powered flight was the frontier in the 20th century. Scarcely two decades before the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, eminent physicists were widely quoted as saying that sustained flight would never happen. The President of the Royal Society of London, Lord Kelvin, said in 1885, "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible."

Twenty-five years later the U.S. government bought its first airplane from the Wright Brothers. Orville and Wilbur, from Dayton, Ohio, designed and built their machine using the profits from their bicycle shop. As one historian noted, "If they needed a part they made it. If they didn't have the tools to make the part, they made the tools." The brothers spent all of six-and-a-half years and $1,000 of their own money on the signature invention of the 20th century.

The story of the Wright Brothers is the story of America - and something more. It is the story of genius, applied with diligence, pursued with love. Neither brother had so much as a high school diploma. Like the creative minds that brought us today's powerful personal computers, the skills they possessed and the tasks God had given them to do transcended the need for formal education.

Geniuses like these both baffle and amaze us. Like ethics in science, however, they are absolutely essential. Governments cannot produce such results. Governments cannot make genius. In the case of embryonic stem cells, government's headlong rush to ignore ethical limits and pick and choose the "winners" will only prove the point once again. If cures are to be found, only genius will find them and only ethical pathways will take us to them.