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Bush's Stem Cell Decision a Victory for the Pharmaceutical Industry, a Blow to Future Patients

by Cheryl Seal

There's an old saying: No man can serve two masters. In other words, you cannot successfully pursue material gain/power and spirituality at the same time. The two pursuits are like oil and water: not only do they not mix, the oil always ends up floating to the top and creating a nasty, air-tight layer.

Bush's decision to allow some federally funded stem cell research - under strict restraints, while calling for regulations that he and his cronies will craft has proven the truth of the above adage. He could not pursue his "spiritual path" (if indeed his religiosity is for real and not, as I suspect, a PR package concocted to fit the GOP political machine's required mold)and material gain/power. The material gain in this case is the support of the pharmaceutical industry, which showered huge amounts of campaign cash on not just Bush, but everyone in his cabinet. Well-concealed from most Americans is the incestuous relationship between Congress and the industry. A dismayingly high number of congresspeople and senators are former drug industry lobbyists. Many others, once their terms are out, have used their inside-the-beltway knowledge to become more effective industry lobbyists. (see http://www.citizen.org/congress/drugs/pharmadrugwar.html).

Now some background on how stem cell research relates to the pharmaceutical industry. First, stem cell research by itself is just the first step. The most vital step, for patients is the development of viable treatments that are readily available. This is where the pharmaceutical industry usually muscles in and where the game changes completely. Initial stem cell research may be done by scientists whose sole goal may be, for example, finding an effective way to regenerate the nerve tisse damaged in Parkinson's or multiple sclerosis, or restoring proper pancreatic function in diabetics. This is as medicine should be.

However, the pharmaceutical industry sees not just a treatment, but a chance to make huge profits. The way the industry makes its huge profits is through cutthroat competition - getting to market first, patenting a treatment, lobbying for protections of its patents, discouraging, or even buying off, companies who seek to produce cheaper, generic versions of treatments, etc., ad nauseum. The Human Genome Project is a classic example of the industry's total greed. Most scientists believe the genome belongs rightfully to all in the human race. As such, they believe the genome should be a database open to all researchers who can thus freely use the information to develop new treatments.

Not so the pharmaceutical/biotech industries (which are becoming two sides of the same coin). Lead by such ambitious entrepreneurs as Craig Ventner of Celera, the industry wants to patent every aspect of the genome that could possibly be of therapeutic benefit, right down to tiny fractions of DNA sequences. On the eve of the completion of the Genome, Celera had already filed 6,500 patents! These companies plan to charge for the right to access the data, demanding a percentage of the profits of any treatment that evolves from the use of information.

To defend this self-aggrandizing and ultimately inhumane system, Ventner, et al., use the old tried-and-true rightwing smokescreen, claiming he is just making a stand for the glory of the "free market" while trying to keep the genetic information out of the hands of the government. Of course, Ventner and other freemarketers never point out that the only treatments that are accessible to all Americans, regardless of income, are those (vaccines, for example) provided by the government. Or that most people, if given the hard choice, would chose a bureaucrat over a corporate exec any day when seeking help, or at least a shred of compassion.

In any case, the current system of charging for every possible piece of useful information bars a huge number of researchers - many of whom could be the next Pasteur for all we know! - from having a shot at making a contribution to humanity. It also keeps the information ultimately under the control of a few corporate execs - the same folks who thought making AIDS drugs available to impoverished Africans was a waste of time and money. The system insures that most breakthrough treatments are extremely expensive and available almost exclusively to the wealthy or those with good medical insurance. Considering 40% of Americans don't have adequate health insurance, this is not only unacceptable in a supposedly progressive society, it is heartbreaking, because so many will be barred from partaking of the benefits of what may be one of the greatest medical revolutions ever.

Does anyone honestly imagine that stem cell research, which holds the promise of some of the most effective treatments ever to evolve, is not being viewed as a gold mine by the pharmaceutical industry? The industry DOES NOT WANT federal regulation. It is very telling that the pro-corporate American Association of Physicians and Surgeons, which opposed the Patients' Bill of Rights, believes everything in medicine should be "free market," and has actually called for doctors NOT to treat medicare patients (real compassion here), advocated pretty much the very stance Bush took.

Without doubt, the pharmaceutical industry most certainly does not want the federal government to extensively fund stem cell research, as this would preclude the industry from playing its high stakes patent games to the hilt. (Although Bush is now promising nearly three-quarter billion in funds, he has narrowed the research opportunities so greatly that the promised funds are merely token. He did the same thing with the VA - upped the funding for veteran disabilities, then increased the waiting time and hoops to be jumped through to the point that the promised funds may never be dispensed).

But honestly funded federal medical research is a boon to the public. Why do you think typical vaccines are so cheap? Because so many were developed through federal funding, then made available to the public. The pharmaceutical industry, by being the sole developers of a product, or the purchasers of the rights, can charge whatever the market will bear once they hold the patent.

Bush's scheme, of allowing federal research to proceed just on 60 cell lines is, in essence, "ghettoizing" the federal end of stem cell research. Only 5 or 6 of these cell lines were derived in the U.S. No one is sure right now if the others even exist, are accessible, or even usable for human research. The number of researchers able to access this limited number of lines at any given time will be small and there will be a waiting list, without doubt. More troubling still: How will access be granted and by who? Bush plans to have an advisory board that will "oversee" the field. This board will be headed by ultraconservative bioethecist Leon Kass, who is affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute a classic rightwing "think tanks" which believes in no government and a freemarket-run world (Kenneth Lay of Enron, tellingly, sits on its board of trustees). In any case, you can be absolutely sure any regulations formulated will, in the end, make sure the pharmaceutical industry, not the American consumer and patient, manages to come out on top.

So, as federal research efforts sputter ahead, now effectively slowed down and encumbered by uncertainties, the pharmaceutical industry can race ahead on its own with new lines, unfettered by federal regulations (they can, afterall, use foreign labs if need be) and get to market with patented goods long before any treatments can come out of federally-funded research.

Given Bush's history of rewarding the biggest spenders on his campaign, and given the fact that the pharmaceutical industry spent about $50 million MORE than any other single industry on campaign contributions and lobbying, it is a common sense conclusion that he plans to reward the pharmaceutical industry BIG TIME. It is my guess, he just made the first installment Thursday night.