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Private Sector Oversight

Although public funds have been expended in support of adult stem cell research, to date all advances in human embryonic and fetal germ cell research have come from the private sector, under-written by biotechnology companies in the hope that products will be developed for medical therapy. This raises important questions about whether ethical and broader social considerations can be adequately addressed by continued exclusive funding by the private sector. The addition of the public oversight that accompanies federal funding offers substantial advantages. Such advantages include increased research productivity, earlier results from the research, a broader range of participation by academic scientists, increased public understanding and support, and greater possibilities that therapies will be developed with consideration for the public good will.

Private sector sponsorship of research certainly does not preclude a degree of oversight or adherence to ethical practices. Geron Corporation, the private company sponsor of all published human embryonic and germ cell research to date, convened an Ethics Advisory Board (EAB) in September 1998 to develop guidelines for the ethical conduct of stem cell research. The EAB sought further public discourse by inviting The Hastings Center Report to publish its findings complete with dissenting views.Symposium. "Stem Cell Research." The Hastings Center Report, 29: 33-48 (March-April 1999). If such boards were to become institutionalized by the private sector, they would have the most credibility and weight if they reviewed ethical and social issues during the start-up phase of research, had a multi-disciplinary membership, including representatives from the local community, and gave minimum, if any, financial compensation for service. Their impact would be greatest if they shared their own findings and recommendations with other companies. However, even with the best of intentions, if a private company establishes its own EAB but disapproves of the Board’s findings, there is no guarantee that the company would abide by the EAB’s conclusions and recommendations. This could undermine public confidence and raise anxiety about the manner in which stem cell research is proceeding.

There are other concerns associated with sole reliance on private sector funding of stem cell research. There is the very real possibility that market forces and perceived investment opportunities by companies will, in the absence of federal funding, exert a disproportionately powerful influence on the development of stem cell research without adequate attention to public priorities. One result could be that the focus of such research will be on diseases likely to lead to profit at the expense of less common but more severe diseases. There is also the possibility that stem cells will become caught up in an expanded marketing of human body parts. In a day when the market for individual genes, or even gene fragments, holds lucrative possibilities,While just in its infancy, the potential market for gene-specific pharmaceuticals is huge. For the biotechnology industry’s view of this topic, see: http://www.forbes.com/specialsections/biotech99/01.htm....great caution should be taken in ceding domain to this area of research to the private sector in the absence of open and widespread public consultation.

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