Political Stem-Cell Debate Delays Medical Progress

Commentator James Reston Jr. describes his frustration with federal limits on stem-cell research. His daughter has a transplanted kidney, and he fears she will need another transplant in a few years. Reston thinks stem-cell technology could help speed up research about growing new kidneys artificially.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

The Senate has passed a bill that would make more stem cell research eligible for federal funding. The White House says President Bush will veto the bill, and there don't seem to be enough votes in either the House or the Senate to override a veto.

In the first of two commentaries on stem cell research, writer James Reston, Jr. says he has a very personal reason for wanting the bill to become law.

Mr. JAMES RESTON, Jr. (Writer): For eight long and dangerous years, our daughter Hillary waited on a kidney transplant list while she plodded along - just barely - on dialysis. She was on a cadaveric list, meaning she had to wait for the death of just the right person with just the right matching body chemistry to receive her deliverance. We watched her struggle, and we watched her dwindle in those years until we were close to giving up hope. And then four years ago, she was miraculously transplanted in Iowa.

But organ transplant has a Janus face. Hillary's deliverance was linked to the death of a beautiful, caring, athletic, intelligent boy, who himself had great promise until he was killed in a racing accident at a state fair.

Three months ago, we met his family in Iowa. It was a profound experience. I could only try to imagine what it was like for them to witness the transforming effects of their son's extraordinary gift.

Someday, there may be another way to cure patients like my daughter. Recently, I attended a conference at Stanford University on the problem and promise of stem cells. One slide at the conference excited me immensely. It was a laboratory example of tissue engineering, where the availability of stem cells could advance the process of growing kidneys artificially. The availability of fresh stem cell lines would speed up and supercharge the process considerably, as well as possibly preventing major diseases.

And speeding things up could be essential. It turns out that Hillary's borrowed kidney may have a life of only 10 years, because the drug she takes to prevent her body from rejecting it are mildly toxic. Her anti-rejection medication is slowly poisoning the organ that saved her.

What then, in a decade, when the poison works its way? Oh, said our transplant surgeon, we'll be able to grow her another one in a petri dish. This is where the stem cell debate becomes very personal indeed. The clock is ticking for us and for many, many others.

Ten years is a very short time for scientific breakthroughs. Our horror would be for Hillary to have to go on another cadaveric list. To wait for what? Another accident at another state fair somewhere in America?

And so it has been frustrating in the past year to hear about the California stem cell initiative stalled in the courts, and to hear of the contaminated few stem cell lines that President Bush has allowed for research. The process has been marked by procrastination and esoteric argument. Now this long overdue bill has finally passed the Senate -that's good news. And here comes President Bush's long-promised veto. More delay lies ahead now. When will science be allowed to go to work?

This issue needs to be joined. We, the potential consumers of this exciting new science, deserve to know if stem cells represent real hope or just another false promise.

YDSTIE: Commentator James Reston, Jr.'s most recent book is, Fragile Innocence: A Father's Memoir of His Daughter's Courageous Journey.

We'll hear another point of view on the stem cell research bill later this week.

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