US stem cell rules loosening?

Advocates read good, bad news between the lines of Zerhouni statement

By | May 20, 2004

A May 14 letter by National Institutes of Health (NIH) director Elias Zerhouni responding to a call by members of Congress for President Bush to expand funding for human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research has some advocates seeing a glimmer of hope for a loosening of federal rules on such research, as well as the possibility of federal funding. But others are decidedly less optimistic.

“From a purely scientific perspective, more cell lines may well speed some areas of hESC research,” Zerhouni wrote in the letter. But he restated the administration's position that “taxpayer funds should not 'sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos that have at least the potential for life.'”

Representatives Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), and 204 other members of Congress wrote the president April 28, asking him to expand his policy to fund research on the estimated 400,000 surplus frozen embryos produced during in vitro fertilization attempts.

“I am hopeful that Dr. Zerhouni's 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,” Castle said in a press release. A DeGette spokesman agreed, calling the NIH chief's statement “a point of common ground” from which to move forward.

In August 2001, President Bush announced that he would limit federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to studies of the 78 cell lines already in existence at that time. Between 15 and 19 of these cell lines are currently available for use, but all were fed with mouse cells, raising the possibility of zoonotic infections, say stem cell researchers.

In the letter, Zerhouni argues that there's no proof stem cells grown on human feeder layers would be safer than mouse-fed cells. He also writes that the NIH spent $24.8 million on human embryonic stem cell research in fiscal year 2003, a 132% increase over the previous year.

Ira Black, director of the Stem Cell Research Center at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Camden, NJ, said that figure was “modest in the extreme.” Black is founding director of the planned Institute for Stem Cell Research in New Jersey, which would be funded by the state. “This may be a wave of the future, in which individual states jump in to fill the void,” Black told The Scientist. California is considering a bond issue for a similar effort.

But Black and others said that larger efforts are needed. “This research needs federal funding,” said Bernard Siegel, executive director of the Genetics Policy Institute. “I just can't read that letter optimistically at this point,” he told The Scientist.

“It certainly has people trying to read between the lines,” Daniel Perry, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, said of Zerhouni's letter. “It becomes a 'reading the tea leaves' kind of an effort.”

Perry said he does see in Zerhouni's words the potential for a shift in White House thinking on what constitutes a human embryo “with at least the potential for life.”

And Michael S. Gazzaniga, director of Dartmouth College's Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and a member of the president's Council on Bioethics, which has issued a report on reproductive technologies, said that as understanding of the real issues involved in embryonic stem cell research grows, support for the research is gaining momentum among the public and politicians—and perhaps even within the administration.

Researchers said that pressure is mounting on President Bush to expand federal funding of stem cell research. “It's hard to know whether [the letter] signals a policy shift by the administration, but the political pressure for them to loosen the restrictions seems to be getting stronger and stronger,” said Eugene Redmond, director of the Neural Transplantation and Repair Program at the Yale University School of Medicine.

And the economic promise of substantial federal funds for stem cell research is becoming impossible for the current administration to ignore, said David Beck, president of the Coriell Institute for Medical Research in Camden, NJ.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group in the Senate is working on its own letter to President Bush seeking expanded stem cell research funding, and Castle and DeGette said they're hoping to meet with the president to discuss the issue before the end of May.

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