BUSH backs limited medical research on embryonic stem cells

Friday, August 10th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush's middle-ground decision on embryonic stem cell research _ to allow federal funding only for stem cell sets already drawn from human embryos _ was called a small step forward by scientists pleased that he didn't deny funding entirely.

But scientists said the limits Bush imposed on funding for new research will slow the search for new disease treatments. The decision also received a mixed reception from groups who oppose the stem cell research because it involves the death of a human embryo.

Confronting what he called ``a difficult moral intersection'' for the nation, Bush said Thursday that he decided to allow some federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, but to restrict the support to a limited number of cell lines. Under the decision, the government would pay for research on stem cells derived from human embryos _ but only with lines already created. If new embryos are either created or destroyed, the government would deny tax support for research into the stem cells they yield.

``This allows us to explore the promise and potential of stem cell research without crossing a fundamental moral line by providing taxpayer funding that would sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos,'' he said in an 11-minute speech nationally televised from his Texas ranch.

Scientists believe that embryonic stem cells offer the promise of spectacular treatments and cures for some of humanity's most serious chronic diseases. The stem cells can be nurtured into any cell in the body and researchers said that new, healthy cells could be injected into patients to correct such disorders as diabetes, Parkinson's disease, spinal cord paralysis and damage from heart attack.

Bush's decision, which the president said he made after talking with scientists, clergy, Congress members and friends, got an uneven reception from people on both sides of the issue. Some scientists attacked the limitation as obstructive to research, while some religious groups called the compromise ``morally unacceptable.''

In his speech, Bush said that there were more than 60 genetically diverse stem cell lines already in existence ``created from embryos already destroyed.''

He said he would limit federal support to these cell lines because ``the life-and-death decision has already been made.''

The research would be limited to stem cells that had been removed from embryos that were surplus or abandoned by couples at fertility clinics. Such embryos are usually destroyed. Federal rules would require that the donors give consent and not benefit from the donation.

Bush said he considered the origin and fate of the embryos when thinking of his decision.

``As I thought through this issue I kept returning to two fundamental questions,'' he said in the speech. ``First, are these frozen embryos human life and therefore something precious to be protected? And second, if they're going to be destroyed anyway, shouldn't they be used for a greater good, for research that has the potential to save and improve other lives?

Bush said the issue ``forces us to confront fundamental questions about the beginnings of life and the ends of science.''

``It lies at a difficult moral intersection, juxtaposing the need to protect life in all its phases with the prospect of saving and improving life in all its stages,'' he said.

Stem cell researchers said they were surprised at Bush saying there were more than 60 existing embryonic stem cell lines. Most scientists said they knew of only a dozen or fewer lines that would meet strict National Institutes of Health guidelines. They also chaffed at the restriction, saying it will slow and perhaps even cripple promising medical research.

Dr. Paul Berg, a Stanford University Nobel laureate, said he was ``mystified'' when Bush said there were more than 60 stem cell lines.

``The most anybody I've talked to is aware of is probably 10 or less,'' he said.

Carl B. Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which represents more than 1,000 research groups, said Bush's limitation on stem cell lines ``may place roadblocks to medical progress'' and ``may cost years, even lives'' by delaying potential treatment for many diseases.

In a telephone conference before the speech, Nobel laureate Dr. Harold Varmus, the former head of the NIH, said placing a limit on the number of cells lines available for study ``would be a very poor investment and a very cruel investment.''

Varmus said the limitation could mean that some people could not benefit from disease treatments developed from the stem cell research because their body would reject the curative cells. He said it could take research with hundreds of cell lines to assure that developed treatments could be used by nearly everyone.

Dr. Larry Goldstein of the University of California, San Diego, said in an earlier interview that a compromise such as that chosen by Bush would please nobody.

``Those who say that the embryos should not have been destroyed in the first place are still offended,'' said Goldstein. ``And from the scientific point of view, it is not enough cell lines.''

Despite these reservations, some researchers were relieved that Bush decided to let at least some embryonic stem cell research receive federal funds.

``The proposed compromise will slow the research, but the compromise is better than halting the research entirely,'' said James Thomson, the University of Wisconsin researcher who became in 1998 the first to isolate human embryonic stem cells.

NIH researchers learned of the 60-plus lines of embryonic stem cells when they surveyed scientists working in private labs worldwide, said Campbell Gardett, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services.

``They were given proprietary information that was closely held,'' said Gardett. ``They do feel that there are more than 60 cell lines that will meet the guidelines'' for federal support.

Some religious leaders hailed the Solomon-like decision as an ideal solution for a national moral dilemma. But a statement from the United States Catholic Conference denounced Bush's action.

``The trade-off he has announced is morally unacceptable,'' said a statement from Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. ``The federal government for the first time in history will support research that relies on the destruction of some defenseless human beings for the possible benefit to others.''