NIH Director Zerhouni Addresses Embryonic Stem Cell Research Policy in Letter
In a "highly anticipated" response to members of Congress who have encouraged President Bush to relax his policy limiting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni in a letter released on Saturday "reiterated the Bush administration's position" but also said that the availability of additional stem cell lines could speed scientific research, the Washington Post reports (Weiss, Washington Post, 5/16). Last month, a bipartisan group of 206 House members sent a letter to Bush asking him to relax his restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Bush's policy -- which he announced on Aug. 9, 2001 -- limits federally funded embryonic stem cell research to stem cell lines created on or before that date. Supporters of embryonic stem cell research say the practice could lead to treatments or cures for diseases such as cancer, juvenile diabetes and Alzheimer's, while opponents say the research is immoral because it requires the destruction of human embryos (California Healthline, 4/29). A similar letter currently is circulating in the Senate, where it has about 50 signatures so far, according to the Post (Washington Post, 5/16). Zerhouni's letter, which was written at the request of Bush and approved by the administration, said, "We are making good progress in meeting the potential of this exciting new field of science" (Hamburger, Los Angeles Times, 5/16). He added, "Today, much of the basic research that needs to be done can be and is being supported with federal funds under the president's policy" (Fox, Reuters, 5/15). Zerhouni also said, "And although it is fair to say that from a purely scientific perspective more cell lines may well speed some areas of human embryonic stem cell research, the president's position is still predicated on his belief that taxpayer funds should not 'sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos that have at least the potential for life.'" The Post reports that some supporters of wider stem cell research interpreted that statement as a "hint that the president may be working toward a compromise on the issue" (Washington Post, 5/16).
Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), who was one of the organizers of the House letter, said the Bush administration's position as outlined by Zerhouni is "certainly not a change in policy." He said he saw the letter "as an invitation to have further discussions" (Gay Stolberg, New York Times, 5/16). He added, "I am hopeful that [the] letter signals a willingness by the White House to work with us to craft a policy in which the federal government will help dramatically accelerate stem cell research, not restrict it" (Reuters, 5/15). Larry Soler of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation called the letter "kind of a turning point" because he said it marks the first admission by the Bush administration that its policy could be impeding scientific progress (New York Times, 5/16). Tony Mazzaschi, an associate vice president at the Association of American Medical Colleges, said that statement about additional stem cell lines is "[o]bviously ... a very politically crafted sentence," but he added, "I do see some movement here" (Washington Post, 5/16). On Friday, Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) said Bush's position on embryonic stem cell research is "another example of the extreme position that (Bush) takes on issues trying to hold onto his conservative base," adding, "We are the most advanced country in terms of medical treatment, but we are on the sidelines in what is the most promising area of research for finding the answers to horrible diseases including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease and diabetes." Carl Gulbrandsen, president of the WiCell Research Institute, said that researchers likely will have to wait until after this year's presidential election to see movement on stem cell funding (Rivedal, Wisconsin State Journal, 5/15).
White House spokesperson Claire Buchan on Saturday said that Bush's position on embryonic stem cell research remains unchanged, adding, "He believes that we should pursue the promise of stem cell research but not cross fundamental moral lines" (New York Times, 5/16). After speaking on Friday at the University of Wisconsin-Madison -- which controls five of the original stem cell lines -- Zerhouni said, "More (stem cell) lines would always be better. (But) the policy is based on moral and ethical concerns of (President Bush) and those around him." He added that he could not recommend more federal funding for the creation of new stem cell lines and private funding must "fill the gap until the nation reaches a consensus on the matter," according to the Associated Press. Zerhouni continued, "We really need to explore all avenues to advance as fast as we can as effectively as we can, within the moral and ethical boundaries around the use of taxpayer dollars to do it. I think it's good to have this debate, but it's not a scientific one. That's not something the NIH can decide" (Associated Press, 5/15). Zerhouni also defended NIH's decision to spend more on adult stem cell research than embryonic stem cell research, noting that the federal government has been funding adult stem cell research for 25 years (Wisconsin State Journal, 5/15).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.