Several directors of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) publicly announced last week that they do not support President Bush's policy on human embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research. In a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labour, Health and Human Services and Education, they broke away from 'a tradition of deference to top administration officials' and openly criticised the ES cell policy.
On 9 August 2001, President Bush announced that federal funds would only be available for research on ES cell lines that were already in existence by that date. Since then, some US scientists have complained that the cell lines available for them to work on are not as numerous as was first calculated (there are fewer than 20 adequate cell lines worldwide). Many also say that the cell lines available are less effective than more newly-created ES cell lines, which have not been created using mouse 'feeder' cells.
Elias Zerhouni, director of the NIH, said that there is 'mounting evidence' that 'from a purely scientific standpoint, more stem cell lines may well be helpful'. He said he was not calling for a policy change, recognising that many people have ethical problems with ES cell research, due to the fact that embryos have to be destroyed to make a new ES cell line. But he said that he was aware that scientists believe that the current policy hinders scientific progress.
However, other NIH members were more outspoken. Elizabeth Nabel, director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, said that 'progress has been delayed by the limited number of cell lines'. James Battey, director of the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, pointed to new ES cell lines recently developed in Chicago, saying that they would have great 'biomedical potential'. But, he added, 'these cell lines were all created after August 9 2001, and are therefore ineligible for federal funding'.
House Representatives Michael Castle and Diane DeGette, sponsors of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act 2005 (which is currently in both Congress and the Senate), argued that the NIH testimonies supported the legislation. The Act, if passed, would allow US federally-funded ES cell researchers to use embryos left over from fertility treatments and donated by patients to create new ES cell lines. Senate majority leader Bill Frist has been quoted as saying that no changes in policy are necessary. However, House Republican leaders have told Castle and other supporters of the bill that there can be a vote on the policy expansion, and he and opponents are negotiating with House leaders as to the time frame for the vote.
Aides on both sides of the debate are quoted as saying they believe that Castle and DeGette's bill, which has 186 co-sponsors, will probably obtain sufficient votes to pass. One House Republican, however, said 'what I don't understand is why they're allowing this to come to the floor when it goes against the President of their own party', adding 'It's going to put him in a tough spot. Is this going to be the first thing he vetoes?'