Bush Administration Defends Limits on Stem Cell Research

Aug. 10, 2001 (Washington) -- In the wake of President Bush's long-awaited and closely watched announcement Thursday night that the U.S. government would fund tightly limited research on human embryonic stem cells, federal health officials claimed that the restrictions would still allow great scientific advances against terrible diseases and disabilities.

But scientists said that Bush's controls would stymie research, even as "pro-life" groups complained that the president had opened the door to killing for the sake of medical progress.

Embryonic stem cells are unspecialized, self-renewing cells. Scientists believe that they can multiply and manipulate the cells so that they transform into brain, heart, pancreas, or many other types of cells.

In his speech, Bush said that he would not publicly fund studies on cell populations, or cell lines, that do not already exist, arguing that that would cross a moral line in tying government dollars to continued destruction of human embryos and "its potential for life." But he will fund studies using whatever stem cell lines have been proven to exist as of his announcement.

To obtain stem cells, researchers must destroy embryos that are about five days old and contain about 50 to 100 total cells.

Bush surprised the science community by announcing that there are more than 60 already existing cell lines, as many believed the number was as low as a dozen.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said Friday that the 60-plus lines are sufficient to potentially allow significant advances in science, noting that only between three and 12 cell lines were used to sequence the human genome.

Thompson said that the stem cell lines already in existence are "viable," "robust," and "diverse," and he suggested Friday that it was probable that even more existing lines will come to light.

Ruth Kirschstein, MD, the acting director of the National Institutes of Health, said, "The approach [Bush] has outlined is sound. Using the more than 60 existing cell lines from around the world, many more researchers will now be able to explore the potential of embryonic stem cells."

"This is a wonderful day for science," said Lana Skirboll, PhD, the NIH's associate director for science policy.

But Art Caplan, PhD, director of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, tells WebMD, "If I was the NIH, if I was in a patient group, if I was in a wheelchair, I would not find the president's position acceptable, because whenever the cell lines exhaust or change, there are no more. ... Given the president's moral position, I think that the door will slam shut just at a time when the research would prove promising."

Under the Bush decision, the NIH will act as a go-between linking researchers with the private interests that have already developed cell lines. According to Thompson, "Those companies want to get those lines to the researchers." To assist researchers, the NIH will set up a public registry with information on each of the approved 60-plus cell lines.

Nevertheless, the arrangement raises patent and intellectual property issues that scientists will have to confront with for-profit ventures.

Caplan tells WebMD, "Bush is talking about some cell lines that will never become available here, because the companies won't want to make them available. They are going to push their commercial interests. Companies may say, 'We are not giving this to you unless you agree to give us a share of anything you ever invent,' which a lot of universities will not like."

Thompson said that the NIH would begin funding research using cells from the already-created lines as early as next year.

The existing cell lines come from the U.S. and other countries, including Israel, Australia, Sweden, and Singapore. They were all created from excess embryos from in vitro fertility activities, officials said. According to the NIH, all of these cells meet ethical requirements, including that their parent embryos were donated to science under informed consent and that the embryo donors weren't given money to influence their decision.

Meanwhile, overall reactions varied on Bush's stem cell decision. "Countless millions of real human persons will lose their lives as a direct consequence of President Bush's decision to authorize federal funding for stem cell research," said Judie Brown, president of American Life League. She claimed, "His decision says, 'if babies are already dead, the U.S. has no problem funding research on their body parts.'"

But another prominent pro-life organization was more satisfied with Bush. "We are delighted that President Bush's decision prevents the federal government from becoming a party to any further killing of human embryos for medical experimentation," said Laura Echevarria, spokeswoman for the National Right to Life Committee.

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said, "This initial research may ultimately serve as a pretext for vastly expanded research that does require the destruction of new living embryos."

But science and patient groups say that they are going to actively lobby Congress to pass legislation that would permit stem cell research from all the excess embryos in the nation's in vitro fertility clinics. There are an estimated 100,000 frozen in vitro embryos. Under current law, leftover in vitro embryos can legally be discarded.

Rep. Amo Houghton (R- N.Y.) said, "I'm going to continue working to open up all research -- it's that important. If there are too many restrictions on funding, and the way research is conducted, this will all move overseas."

This more generous federal support would be in line with what the Clinton administration had proposed, but doesn't appear to have the votes to survive a Bush veto.