After fierce lobbying from scientists and celebrities such as Christopher Reeve, as well as by conservatives and religious leaders including the Pope, President Bush last week announced his long-awaited policy on embryonic stem cell research. In a carefully worded compromise, he said he would support work on stem cells that already had been propagated from embryos otherwise fated for disposal in fertility clinics. However, the President said he opposes financing the destruction of additional embryos to create new cell lines.
“I have concluded that we should allow federal funds to be used for research on these existing stem cell lines, where the life-and-death decision has already been made,” Bush said in a nationally televised address. More than 60 such cell lines exist, he said. During the speech, Bush also announced the creation of a panel, headed by a bioethicist, to oversee such research.
The President disappointed some of his backers who say he broke a pledge not to fund any research on the stem cells, but he was apparently swayed by the cells’ medical potential. Scientists say that transplants of the cells, which can develop into any type of tissue, may treat conditions ranging from Alzheimer’s disease to spinal cord injuries (SN: 7/19/97, p. 36) to diabetes.
Bush’s decision to permit some federal funding in this area delighted many scientists. “We have some clear green lights for a limited beginning of embryonic stem cell research,” says Robert R. Rich, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Md.
Still, because of concern about the limits set by the President, the new policy brought a mixed reaction from biologists. “It’s better than nothing,” biologist Lee M. Silver of Princeton University told CNN. But given the restrictions, he added, “it’s like doing science with one hand tied behind your back.”
Some biologists doubt whether as many as 60 suitable cell lines already exist and whether these lines contain enough genetic variability to satisfy research demands. The inability to derive new cell lines may also hamper work on therapeutic cloning, a strategy in which physicians would use a patient’s DNA to create embryonic stem cells matched to that person. Such cells could be transplanted into the patient without any risk of rejection.
Rich also cautions that many existing stem cell lines may be controlled by companies. “We would prefer to derive new stem cells that don’t have commercial strings attached,” he says.
The stem cell debate now moves to Congress. A report by the National Academies of Science on the biomedical promise of all forms of stem cells is due out soon.