Stem cell stalemate

By Aaron Zitner

Los Angeles Times

CRAWFORD, Texas – President Bush, navigating the most politically charged decision of his administration, announced Thursday that he would allow the federal government to fund medical research that uses stem cells taken from a limited number of human embryos.

But in a significant constraint, the president said that the government would pay only for experiments using stem cells that already have been drawn from embryos, and that it would not fund research that caused any additional embryos to be destroyed.

“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,” the president said in his first prime-time address to the nation since he took office.

The decision was well-received by some anti-abortion groups, which make up a key part of Bush’s political base and had threatened to punish the president if he went too far in supporting the research. Because human embryos are destroyed to obtain stem cells, they consider the experiments tantamount to murder.

“We’re delighted,” said Laura Echevarria, spokeswoman for the National Right to Life Committee. “This decision prevents the federal government from being party to the destruction of any human embryos for experimentation.”

Several prominent scientists immediately criticized the decision, saying that Bush had adopted restrictions that would prevent the government from jump-starting the single most promising avenue of medical research.

The decision has the potential to spark a battle with Congress. A majority of lawmakers in both the House and Senate had asked Bush to fund the research. Several senators have been pushing for a far broader set of research rules than Bush adopted, and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said Thursday night that the Senate would likely review Bush’s stance.

In his remarks, broadcast from his Texas ranch, Bush said he had carefully weighed the promise of the research with the fear that destroying embryos demeaned human life. He said the nation is grappling with a range of laboratory reports regarding the earliest forms of human life, including news that some scientists already are moving to produce cloned human embryos, a move that Bush said he “strongly” opposes.

The president said that “like all Americans, I have great hope for cures. I also believe human life is a sacred gift from our creator. I worry about a culture that devalues life and believe, as your president, I have an important obligation to foster and encourage respect for life in America and throughout the world.”

In balancing the “great promise and great peril” of the research, Bush said he would limit federal funding for research using only those sets of stem cells that already have been drawn from human embryos.

Bush said that 60 such sets of cells, known as cell lines, were in existence, and he noted that the “life-and-death decision” had already been made to destroy those embryos. “Leading scientists tell me research on these 60 lines has great promise that can lead to breakthrough therapies and cures,” he said.

But he said it was not proper to use taxpayer money to destroy new human embryos.

Several researchers, however, said that 60 cell lines was insufficient to exploit the promise of stem cells.

Douglas Melton, chairman of Harvard University’s department of molecular and cellular biology, said he knew of scientific publications describing about 10 of those cell lines. “And some of those 10 cell lines don’t grow well at all and are largely useless,” he said. “There are only one or two that I know of that are helpful.”

Moreover, he said, private companies hold the rights to some of the existing cell lines, and they are not willing to share them on terms that academic researchers can accept.

No federal law bars private companies from extracting stem cells from human embryos or studying them. But the federal government is by far the largest supporter of U.S. medical research, and a broad commitment to financial support would draw many more researchers to the field, several scientists said.

That Bush devoted a nationally televised speech to stem cell research showed how prominent the issue has become in only a few months. It was scarcely debated in the presidential campaign last fall, though Bush, through spokesmen and in written statements, said he opposed federal funding for the experiments.

At least 38 House Republicans asked Bush to support the research, and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., claimed that more than 70 senators wanted the federal funding. They included such solid abortion opponents as Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., and Bill Frist, R-Tenn., the only physician in the Senate and an adviser to Bush on health matters.

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