WASHINGTON, DC—The President's Council on Bioethics released its first report on stem cell research at a meeting here yesterday (January 15). But unlike one of its noteworthy predecessors, the new report,
Instead, the 400-page-plus report, which includes four chapters and several appendices, summarizes the most recent developments in stem cell science, outlines the ethical issues surrounding stem cells—in particular embryonic stem cells—and provides an overview of the current federal policy.
Responding to a query by one puzzled audience member, Council Chair Leon R. Kass said that the council declined to make specific recommendations because the stem cell research field is young, and the president's policy and its implementation are even younger. In August 2001, President Bush announced that under his policy, only the approximately 60-plus stem cell lines that already existed would be eligible for funding.
“It'd be premature to jump in and second guess current arrangements before we give them time to work,” Kass said. He said that the council is working on a report focusing on biotechnology and public policy that will address issues related to the ethics of stem cell research. He also said that an additional, future stem cell report may include recommendations: “We might revisit down the road how to proceed.”
“This [report] is a more important contribution than if we'd said 'ten to seven for this or against this,'” Kass told
Council member William B. Hurlbut, consulting professor in human biology at Stanford University, called the new document an “intermediate report on an emerging technology.” And council member Robert P. George, director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, labeled the report “descriptive not prescriptive.” He told
Among the policy issues that the report clarifies, Kass told
“Let's be honest though,” countered Lawrence S.B. Goldstein, a professor of cellular and molecular medicine at University of California. “That's splitting hairs. The president with great fanfare tried to make the point that there were a great number of lines available, eligible, whatever. The fact is that that number's really quite small. It will support limited research.”
Regardless of how many stem cell lines are available, the real limiting factor for the research, Kass said—reiterating a point made by National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Elias Zerhouni at one of the council's past meetings—is “trained human capital:” the number of qualified practitioners that apply to the NIH for embryonic stem cell research grants.
But Goldstein, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, told
Goldstein, who is chair of the Public Policy Committee at the American Society for Cell Biology, also criticized the science section of the report. “The administration has wasted its money by having a duplicate scientific review,” he said, suggesting that NIH and the National Academy of Sciences would have been better qualified to assemble such a synthesis.