Stem cell research a national security issue

CIRM grantee Paul Knoepfler, who is assistant professor at UC Davis, had an editorial in the Saturday Sacramento Bee making the case for stem cell research as a national security priority. Knoepler has blogged about this issue in the past, as congress has looked to cut research funding as part of budget negotiations.

Knoepfler argues:

“As Congress debates the budget, Republicans are proposing a large cut to the National Institutes of Health, which funds stem cell research across America. At the same time, Republicans want increases for defense spending in the name of national security. Stem cells hold such promise for treating not only our civilians, but also our troops, that federal funding of stem cell research must be considered a national security issue as well.”

Knoepfler points to a few specific stem cell advances as being particularly relevant to battlefield injuries. The first is as a source of blood for transfusions. Today, all blood transfusions come from donations that must be stored until needed. In the past year, researchers have started being able to mature embryonic stem cells into different types of blood cells that could one day be stored in large quantities without the need for constant donations.

The value of embryonic stem cells is that they multiply in the lab, creating an unlimited supply of cells. By contrast, the adult blood forming stem cells don’t expand in the lab, limiting supply. (You can read our blog entry about the technology here.)

Knoepfler also points to skin stem cells as a way of healing life-threatening burns. This technology is already being tested. In the future, skin stem cells from an injured person could be multiplied outside the lab and used as a source for new skin. Alternatively, since the process of harvesting and multiplying a person’s own cells might take too long, skin cells matured from embryonic stem cells could serve as a source for therapies.

Similarly, stem cells are showing promise for repairing broken bones or cartilage injuries, which might otherwise not heal properly.

And finally, a major hope for stem cell research is the ability to heal spinal cord injuries that could otherwise leave a soldier in a wheelchair for life. A stem cell trial for spinal cord injury by Menlo Park-based Geron started in 2010.

Knoepfler concludes:

“The key fuel pushing these amazing biomedical advances is research funding, but that funding is jeopardized by budget politics and spurious federal court cases. We have a moral obligation to set aside politicking and do what is best for our troops: Fully legalize and stably fund stem cell research, including embryonic stem cell research. Embryonic stem cells are made from microscopic, frozen clumps of only a few dozen cells left over from fertility treatments that would otherwise be discarded. [Here’s more about how the cells are created.]The troops who could be saved by such stem cells are not only fully grown people, but also patriotic Americans.”