NIH Chief Backs Wider Policy on Funding for Stem Cell Research
NIH Director Elias Zerhouni on Monday during a Senate Appropriations Committee subcommittee hearing on NIH funding for fiscal year 2008 said that he supports lifting restrictions on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research, the Los Angeles Times reports (Alonso-Zaldivar/Kaplan, Los Angeles Times, 3/20). Federal funding for embryonic stem cell research is allowed only for research using embryonic stem cell lines created on or before Aug. 9, 2001, under a policy announced by President Bush on that date.
The House in January voted 253-174 to pass the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007 (HR 3, S 5), which would allow federal funding for research using stem cells derived from embryos originally created for fertility treatments and willingly donated by patients. The measure is the same as a bill (HR 810) Bush vetoed last year, and the White House in a statement released in January reiterated Bush's intent to veto the measure.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has said that if Bush vetoes the measure, then he will try to attach it to any "must-do" legislation (American Health Line, 1/22).
Harkin, who chairs the subcommittee that held Tuesday's hearing, is sponsoring the Senate version of the legislation, which is expected to go to the chamber's floor after the spring recess, CongressDaily reports (Johnson, CongressDaily, 3/20).
Zerhouni, in a response to a question from Harkin, said, "From my standpoint, it is clear today that American science will be better-served, and the nation will be better-served, if we let our scientists have access to more stem cell lines" (Los Angeles Times, 3/20).
Harkin at the hearing asked Zerhouni if scientists will have "a better chance of finding ... new cures, new interventions for diseases, if the current restrictions on embryonic stem cell research are lifted."
Zerhouni responded, "I think the answer is yes," adding that the embryonic stem cell lines currently available for research "will not be sufficient for the research we need to do." He also said that NIH should lead embryonic stem cell research because the agency has more scientific expertise than any other institution worldwide and because the agency has a strong history of implementing safeguards in new research, CQ HealthBeat reports.
Harkin also asked if adult stem cell research has greater potential than embryonic stem cell research. Zerhouni said that such views are an overstatement and do not "hold scientific water too well," adding that "all angles of stem cell research should be pursued" (Reichard, CQ HealthBeat, 3/19). It is "in the best interest of our scientists, our science, our country that we find ways -- that the nation finds a way to allow the science to go full speed on both adult and embryonic stem cell research," Zerhouni said (Dunham, Reuters, 3/20).
White House spokesperson Tony Fratto said that Zerhouni is free to express his opinion on stem cell research but added that Bush will set the policy. "After careful and thoughtful deliberation with government and outside experts, there was only one moral line that the president said he would not cross -- and that is that federal taxpayer dollars should not be used in the destruction of embryos," Fratto said (Los Angeles Times, 3/20).
An unnamed White House spokesperson added that Zerhouni would be breaking Bush administration policy if he called for making additional stem cell lines eligible for federal funding (CQ HealthBeat, 3/19).
According to the Times, several researchers welcomed Zerhouni's comments.
Renee Reijo Pera, director of the embryonic stem cell program at Stanford University, said she thinks Zerhouni's testimony "in the long run ... will make a difference" in restrictions on federal funding for the research.
Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, said Zerhouni's comments showed that "he's not looking at the issue objectively," adding that he has ignored the potential of stem cells derived from sources other than embryos (Los Angeles Times, 3/20).
Also at the hearing, representatives from a consortium of major medical and scientific institutions testified that a lack of funding for grants at NIH has stymied scientific research, the Washington Times reports. In previous years, the federal health agency's budget typically increased by 15%.
It grew by 2.5% in 2004, 2% in 2005 and one-tenth of 1% last year, for a total budget of $28.3 billion. The fiscal 2007 budget has yet to be released, but an increase of eight-tenths of 1% is projected for 2008, according to NIH figures.
The researchers testified that NIH's recent funding levels have caused about eight out of 10 research grant applications to go unfunded and researchers to spend more time applying for grants than studying treatments for diseases. Some representatives from the consortium also contributed to an independent report that criticized the funding levels.
The report suggested that limited funding at NIH could hinder the discovery of treatments for cancer, Alzheimer's disease and neurological diseases, while discouraging a new generation of researchers. The report also noted that some researchers might turn to foreign funding (Harper, Washington Times, 3/20).
Harkin and subcommittee ranking member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) criticized the president's NIH budget proposal. Harkin told the committee, "I assure everyone here, Senator Specter and I will not allow these cuts to take place" (Cooney, Boston Globe, 3/20).