The Issues: Stem Cell Research

CBS News continues a month-long series titled "What Does It Mean To You?" focused on where the presidential candidates stand on major issues and how a vote for one or the other candidate might affect average people's lives.

In this report, CBS News Correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin examines the political controversy over stem cell research.

Prof. Doug Melton is on a mission to harness the power of embryonic stem cells. Considered by many to be the building blocks of life, the hope is that embryonic stem cells can be programmed to reverse, even cure, diseases like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and Doug Melton's specialty, type 1 diabetes.

But there's a catch: Embryonic stem cells come from embryos - mostly frozen leftovers slated to be thrown away from fertility clinics. But many in this country regard those embryos as human life and consider their use in research immoral. President Bush's policy is an attempt to acknowledge those views while allowing research to go forward.

"Embryonic stem cell research is at the leading edge of a series of moral hazards," Mr. Bush has said.

"This issue forces us to consider the fundamental questions about the beginnings of life."

In a 2001 speech, the president outlined the position he is sticking with in the current campaign: Researchers getting government money can only use existing supplies of embryonic stem cells -- so no new embryos will be destroyed.

Few scientific endeavors are as much affected by politics as embryonic stem cell research. What happens in November could have a profound impact not only on Doug Melton's work at Harvard, but in his personal life as well.

Both of Melton's children have type 1 diabetes, a chronic disease that can lead to blindness and kidney failure. Melton shifted his research focus after his son's diagnosis.

"I'm no different than any other parent. Any parent whose child gets diabetes says, 'What am I going to do about this?'" Melton said.

But Mr. Bush's embryonic stem cell policy has created obstacles for Melton. Though he favors regulation, there are not enough existing cells, he says, to make meaningful progress.

"Someone has described it as trying to do research with one hand held behind your back," he said.

John Kerry, on the other hand, is promising to increase federal funding and open up the field.

"We must lift those barriers that stand in the way of stem cell research in America," Kerry has said.

If there's a change in administration policy it will speed discovery and lead to cures faster. There's no doubt that the present policy is hampering research.

Regardless of the outcome of the election, Doug Melton will continue toiling away. He has already created his own supply of embryonic stem cells using private funding. But this accomplished scientist feels his life will be a failure if he can't help his kids.

Melton was asked if could separate his professional and personal lives - the scientist from the father.

"I try not to. I mean for me, my life is those two things. When I go home, of course I enjoy my children as any parent does, but I'm waking up in the morning thinking about how to find a cure" he said.