Clarifying a White House Letter on Stem Cell Research

Eugene C. Tarne | September 23, 2015

The White House recently launched a site on Tumblr to feature letters sent to the president by the American people.

The handful of letters posted so far cover a variety of subjects, including the usual suspects such as jobs, wages, healthcare and the economy.

But one letter in particular stands out and has garnered attention in the media — including media overseas e.g., here and here.

The letter is from 15-year-old Gavin Nore of Iowa. Early in 2013, Gavin was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Gavin courageously fought back against his diagnosis. Doctors utilized stem cells to treat Gavin and this treatment, combined with Gavin’s bravery, led to victory in his battle against this cancer.


Gavin wanted to write to the White House about this because, as he recounts in his letter, back in 2007, when he was seven, Gavin had the opportunity to meet then-candidate Barack Obama. Gavin asked the candidate whether, if elected president, he would “continue stem cell research.” Candidate Obama assured the boy that he would. Gavin concludes his letter by thanking Obama for keeping that promise because without stem cell research “I wouldn’t be here.”

While the White House website features Gavin’s letter as yet another example of how the administration’s policies are having a direct and positive impact on people, a clarification is needed here before the administration takes too much credit.

During the 2008 campaign, Obama emphasized what he considered the necessity of human embryonic stem cell research (hESCR) and his strong support for it, in contrast to the ethically constrained approach to such research adopted by the Bush Administration. At the same time, Obama downplayed or ignored the promising alternatives to hESCR such as adult stem cell research.

But the stem cell treatment that saved Gavin’s life did not use human embryonic stem cells. The most common stem cell therapy for Hodgkin’s lymphoma combines high-dose chemotherapy with a stem cell transplant. The chemotherapy first destroys the cancer cells, and then the patient receives an infusion of blood-forming stem cells to replenish his system. The stem cells can originate from the patient himself, or from a donor. In either case, the stems cells used are emphatically not human embryonic stem cells.

A variant of this type of adult stem cell treatment – chemotherapy followed by an infusion of adult stem cells – has also been used to successfully treat patients with, among other diseases, diabetes and multiple sclerosis.

The Obama administration did “continue stem cell research,” most notably by lifting the Bush-era rules on hESCR and greatly expanding federal funding for it. But neither this policy of expanding federal support for ethically contentious hESCR, nor such research itself, was responsible for saving Gavin’s life.

Ethically non-contentious adult stem cells were.

Eugene C. Tarne is Senior Analyst for Charlotte Lozier Institute.

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