South Carolina, as do many other states, finds itself in the midst of the national stem cell debate. The nature of the debate is largely tied to embryonic stem cell research, as well as to the 2001 cell line restrictions. Issues have been further complicated by the fact that many embryonic stem cells are often destroyed as medical waste following in vitro fertilization treatments. This seemingly suggests that one form of destruction appears acceptable, but research use is not. In addition, the restrictions on federal funding have seen several states take up the financial challenges themselves to preserve their research position. Many within the field feel that the 2006 presidential veto and the National Institutes of Health’s permitted embryonic cell lines do not offer enough research potential in a field that is rapidly growing.
In the scientific community, there is much concern that research bans on access to embryonic stem cells might drive researchers to other states where such research is feasible, or even abroad to other countries, such as Britain, that have more generous experimental rules. Also of concern is the fact that many research scientists are currently considering relocation to carry on their work. One result could mean that they move to states like California, which has not only endorsed the technology but also has allocated a $3 billion initiative for stem cell research programs. This reality is one of which research and higher-education establishments in South Carolina are much aware.
South Carolina’s position in the heart of the old South makes for a conservative social environment, which is reflected in the state’s approach to stem cell research. The state has not authorized any funding for stem cell research, and the majority political sentiment was opposed to the latest Stem Cell Enhancement Act of 2007. The pro-embryonic stem cell forces were disappointed when they failed to obtain the necessary two-thirds majority vote in Congress to override a presidential veto. In the Senate, Republican Senators Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham both voted against the bill, and in the House, the South Carolina delegation produced a 4 to 2 vote against the legislation, with South Carolina’s four Republican congressmen opposing the legislation.
South Carolina’s general political mood leans toward the views of the pro-life camp, in which even constitutionally guaranteed abortion rights are still debated, as seen in the recent state ultrasound bill, which would have required women wanting an abortion to view an ultrasound of their baby before the abortion occurred. Therefore, embryonic stem cell research stirs considerable passions within the state and has led to the state’s legal limitations on human cloning practices. There currently stands an amendment to earlier state legislation, the Biotechnology Act of 2008, which, although it approves stem cell research given oversight by an institutional review board, nevertheless prohibits the purchase or selling of preimplantation embryos for embryonic research. All such legislation is subject to court review; however, it does reflect South Carolina’s general approach to the stem cell debate.
In a state with a strong Southern Baptist religious tradition, campaigns of this and other religious organizations, such as the South Carolina Citizens for Life, against embryonic stem cell research, continue to have much influence on state policy. This group and others acknowledge the claims made by scientists that embryonic stem cells may have more curative potential than nonembryonic stem cells; however, the research so far has not produced any cures and has also resulted in there existing tumors in lab animals. As such, this and other pro-life groups have entered the stem cell debate as supporters of nonembryonic stem cell lines; for example, those drawn from umbilical cord blood, placentas, fat, and bone barrow. This adult stem cell research does receive the state’s approval for federal funding. In addition, this form of research meets certain Do No Harm criteria, and in their eyes, it is more ethically acceptable. The fact that embryos are easier to obtain is not grounds for their use, nor is it seen as the best long-term solution for stem cell availability.
As science advances, there are also new developments, such as human therapeutic cloning, which offer additional stem cell options. These stem cells are genetically matched from the donated adult cell, and when they are extracted from patients with certain diseases, they might offer clues to the nature of certain illnesses, which in turn might well lead to treatments for diabetes, heart disease, and Parkinson’s disease.
South Carolina’s universities clearly realize the research potential found in stem cells and are working to move science forward, even in the face of certain restrictive obstacles and the lack of state funding. Clemson University’s Bioengineer-ing Department, in conjunction with the Medical College of the University of South Carolina, have made stem cell research a primary part of their regenerative medicine program and are investigating a variety of outcomes.
There are also collaborative programs in regenerative medicine at the University of South Carolina, where a project is in full operation. Given the many issues involved, the program is currently examining a number of applications involving adult stem cells, for which fewer restrictions apply. Specifically, this research is exploring heart tissue repair as well as congenital abnormalities, which might lead to improved patient benefits. The creation of specialized cells and customized therapies could produce major medical dividends. In support of its stem cell research efforts, the university also has an active pro-cures movement that campaigns for a more receptive climate for such work. In addition, the University of South Carolina acknowledges the ethical dimensions of such work with courses on Stem Cell Research and Affirmation of Life. There are also individuals, such as Professor Robert G. Best, in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, who have thoroughly examined the moral and ethical issues involved in this research. Further, the Medical University of South Carolina has an active medical scientist training program geared to preparing the researchers of the future. Therefore, South Carolina education continues to be focused on the highest levels of stem cell research even in the midst of an environment that has a number of limitations.