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Stem cells: this election's neglected child

An important issue pushed into the background.

Stem cell issues: still important issues. Photograph: Getty Images

In a US election year dominated by economic issues, research using human embryonic stem cells (hESC) has received far less attention in 2012 than in previous election years – just another social debate pushed into the background, despite its ethical controversy and the fact that it could have major implications for the treatment of conditions as serious and widespread as diabetes, cancer, heart disease and dementia.

Although stem cell research isn't exactly on top of this year's election agenda, the result when America goes to the polls on 6 November could have a major impact on hESC research in the US. The main issue at hand is not whether embryonic stem cell research should be banned – both Obama and Romney agree that this research is legal – but whether it should be federally funded through the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

President Obama has effectively made his position clear during his time in office. In 2009, he reversed a directive from his predecessor George W Bush that denied federal funding to research on any stem cells created after 2001, limiting researchers to the 21 stem cell lines (a family of constantly dividing cells) that had been derived from embryos up to that point. Obama's legislation re-opened the 1,000 or more stem cell lines that have been created since then to federally-funded research, a move welcomed by the scientific community and condemned by pro-life campaigners and conservative Republicans.

In reality, despite Obama's 2009 legislation, under the Dickey-Wicker amendment introduced in 1996 it is still illegal in the US to pursue any research that involves the creation, destruction or discarding of human embryos, meaning that although American scientists can conduct research on stem cell lines derived from embryos, they are barred from using embryos to create their own lines. The Dickey-Wicker amendment remains an obstacle to embryonic stem cell research in the US and it's unclear if the president would have the clout to do away with it if re-elected.

Romney's personal view on hESC seems to broadly follow the pro-life stance of his party; he supports stem cell research in general, but opposes the destruction of embryos for the purpose. In a Republican presidential candidates' debate for the last election in 2007, Romney stated that he wouldn't use federal funds to finance hESC research. This would essentially take the US back to the same situation as under George W Bush, and there's no reason to think that Romney has changed his position between 2007 and now.

The Republican candidate has consistently extolled the benefits of adult and umbilical cord stem cells, which, he asserts, provide the benefits of creating pluripotent cells without the "moral shortcut" of destroying an embryo in the process. Alternatives to embryonic stem cell research are Romney's perfect political solution, allowing him to appear to support stem cell research without losing the religious right by excusing the destruction of embryos.

From a scientific standpoint, his position is less tenable. Researchers have said that the development of non-embryonic stem cell types is actually dependent on embryonic stem cell research as a complementary process. So by plugging adult stem cell research alternatives as the exclusive answer to the field's ethical issues, Romney may be unwittingly damaging their development by depriving researchers of important side-by-side embryonic research.

Whatever the outcome of the elections on 6 November, the US is unlikely to live up to its stem cell research potential when compared to world leaders in the field. If Obama wins, there will at least be federal funding to study existing embryonic stem cells, but the Dickey-Wicker amendment will maintain the ban on creating new stem cell lines. If Romney turns the tide and emerges on top, American stem cell researchers will likely have to suffer through four more years in the unfunded wilderness.

This piece can be read in full here.