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Controversy Over Stem-Cell Research Keeps Charities On Sidelines

The Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation has been in the news because of its clash with Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

But another aspect of Komen's activities hasn't received much attention: Komen's position on research using human embryonic stem cells.

Despite raising millions of dollars for breast cancer research, Komen hasn't funded any of this work, prompting questions about whether that decision is rooted in politics.

"We find this disappointing and really fairly ironic for a group that is 'for the cure' to walk away from research that many scientists think could unlock cures for diseases, including cancer," said Sean Tipton of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, which lobbies for research with human embryonic stem cells.

Many scientists think human embryonic stem cells could lead to cures for many ailments, including heart disease, diabetes, some forms of blindness and possibly cancer. But human embryos have been destroyed to obtain some of the cells. So the research has long been controversial.

"Anything that involves reproductive biology, whether it's a sex survey among high school students or it's contraceptive services, abortion, immediately stirs up political passions," said Daniel Greenberg, who studies the intersection of science and politics.

No one from Komen agreed to be interviewed for this story. But officials maintained that the group doesn't have a formal ban on research involving human embryonic stem cells. They say they just haven't found anything worth funding yet.

But Tipton and others say there are many ways stem cells could help fight breast cancer. "Embryonic-stem-cell work is a powerful research tool for all kinds of diseases and conditions, and breast cancer would certainly be one of those candidates," Tipton said.

For example, stem cells could be used to study the genetic causes of breast cancer, decipher the basic biology of breast cancer tumors and perhaps test new drugs to treat the disease, Tipton and others said.

Now, it turns out, Komen isn's alone. Neither the American Cancer Society nor the American Heart Association funds research with human embryonic stem cells. That's frustrating for many scientists.

"Funding science is supposed to be based on merit," said George Q. Daley, a stem-cell researcher at Harvard University. "Scientific funding should support the best ideas. And if someone has a brilliant idea relevant to breast cancer research or heart disease that uses human embryonic stem cells, it'd be a huge lost opportunity to have one of these foundations refuse to fund it."

Charitable groups can be skittish about politically sensitive research because of fears of alienating some of the legions of volunteers and donors they depend on for survival, Greenberg said.

"These groups live on handouts from the public and they are very, very concerned about offending any donors or potential donors. It's very easy to scare them off," Greenberg said. "Various groups that have a particular issue to push know about this sensitivity and vulnerability of charitable organizations and they're able to manipulate it very well."

Rose Marie Robertson, chief science officer at the American Heart Association. acknowledged that embryonic stem cells could lead to breakthroughs for the nation's leading killer. That's why, she said, her group supports federal funding of the research. But the heart association has banned funding the work itself because of fears of offending volunteers and donors.

"There are people who have varying views in terms of whether they find this personally or ethically, or from a religious perspective, something that is reasonable," Roberton said. "If, in fact, donors chose not to support the heart association because of a particular view in terms of human-embryonic-stem-cell research that would really be harmful."

The American Cancer Society wouldn't make anyone available for an interview. In a statement, the group said it funds research into promising alternatives to human embryonic stem cells. But the "nature" of human embryonic stem cell research "make it imperative that it be pursued under appropriate protections," the groups said. And the federal government, not the cancer society, is "best suited" to "oversee it," according to the statement.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

While much attention is focused on the Komen Foundation's funding of Planned Parenthood, another aspect of its activities has gotten little notice: Komen's position on human embryonic stem cell research. Despite a research budget of more than $60 million a year, it has not funded any of this research.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

That has prompted questions about whether that, too, is politically motivated.

And as NPR's Rob Stein reports, Komen is not alone. The question of whether or not to fund embryonic stem cell research highlights just how sensitive private charities can be about controversial biomedical issues.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: During the intense backlash that erupted last week over Komen's attempt to distance itself from Planned Parenthood, another seemingly provocative report emerged. It said the group had also defunded human embryonic stem cell research. That turned out not to be true. But Komen acknowledged that the foundation has never funded any research involving human embryonic stem cells.

Sean Tipton says that's shortsighted. He's with the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, a lobbying group.

SEAN TIPTON: We find this disappointing and really fairly ironic for a group that is for the cure to walk away from a research that many scientists think could unlock cures for diseases, including cancer.

STEIN: Now, because this research involves human embryos, it's become embroiled in the abortion debate. Dan Greenberg has written several books about science and politics.

DAN GREENBERG: Anything that involves reproductive biology - whether it's a sex survey among high school students or its contraceptive services, abortion - immediately stirs up political passions.

STEIN: Officials at Komen declined NPR's request for an interview for this story. But they maintained that the group doesn't have a formal ban on human embryonic stem cell research. They just haven't found anything worth funding yet.

But Tipton and others say there are many ways stem cells could help fight breast cancer.

TIPTON: Embryonic stem cell work is a powerful research tool for all kinds of diseases and conditions, and breast cancer would certainly be one of those candidates.

STEIN: For example, stem cells could be used to study the genetic causes of breast cancer, decipher the basic biology of breast tumors, and perhaps test new drugs to treat the disease.

Indeed, other groups fighting diseases do fund this research: the American Diabetes Association, the Alzheimer's Association and others. But the American Cancer Society won't fund the research, nor will the American Heart Association.

That's frustrating for scientists like George Daley, a leading stem cell scientist at Harvard.

DR. GEORGE DALEY: Funding science is supposed to be based on merit. You know, scientific funding should support the best ideas. And if someone has a brilliant idea relevant to breast cancer research or heart disease that uses human embryonic stem cells, it'd be a huge lost opportunity to have one of these foundations refuse to fund it.

STEIN: So why are these groups so skittish about funding embryonic stem cell research? Dan Greenberg says the reason is really not that surprising.

GREENBERG: These groups live on handouts from the public and they are very, very concerned about offending any donors or potential donors. It's very easy to scare them off. Various groups that have a particular issue to push know about the sensitivity and vulnerability of charitable organizations, and they're able to manipulate it very well.

STEIN: The American Heart Association acknowledges that embryonic stem cells could lead to breakthroughs. Rose Marie Robertson, the association's top scientist, says that's why her group supports federal funding of the research. But the association has banned funding the work itself, she says, because of fears of alienating volunteers and donors.

DR. ROSE MARIE ROBERTSON: There are people who have varying views in terms of whether they find this personally or ethically, or from a religious perspective, something that is reasonable.

STEIN: And why is that important?

ROBERTSON: If, in fact, donors chose not to support the Heart Association because of a particular view, in terms of human embryonic stem cell research, that would really be harmful.

STEIN: The American Cancer Society would not make anyone available for an interview. But in a statement, the society said it funds research into promising alternatives. But the nature of human embryonic stem cell research, the statement says, makes it imperative that it be pursued under appropriate protections. And the federal government, the Cancer Society says, is best suited to take that on.

Rob Stein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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