No decision on stem cells

US President's Council on Bioethics takes no position in 400-page report

Jan 16, 2004
Eugene Russo(erusso@the-scientist.com)

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, Monitoring Stem Cell Research, made no recommendations and took no particular ethical or policy position.

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 The Scientist, alluding to the council's cloning report. In that report, ten members voted for both a ban on reproductive cloning and a 4-year moratorium on therapeutic cloning; seven advocated a ban on reproductive cloning and the allowing of therapeutic cloning with federal regulation.

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 The Scientist that for now, making recommendations is difficult given the “unbridgeable divisions within the council” with regard to issues such as determining the moral status of the embryo—disagreements, he suggested, that reflect divisions in the public at large.

Among the policy issues that the report clarifies, Kass told The Scientist, is the misconception that there's actually a ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research rather than simply a limited number of available embryonic stem cell lines. He said the report also clarifies the distinction between “available” and “eligible” embryonic stem cell lines. Currently, there are 78 “eligible” stem cell lines—i.e., those cultured prior to the president's August 2001 announcement; the number rose since his 60-something estimate—and 15 “available” lines—i.e., those that are not just eligible but also adequately characterized, stable, cultured populations suitable for distribution to researchers.

“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 The Scientist that human capital and stem cell lines are both concerns. “They're related issues,” he said. “If, in the community of scientists, there is the perception of limited availability of reagents and funding, and there's concern about whether there will be long-term prospects of this field, folks get nervous about getting into it.”

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.