The director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), Elias Zerhouni, has said that he supports the removal of the current restrictions on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research imposed by President Bush in 2001. 'From my standpoint, it is clear today that American science will be better-served, and the nation will be better-served, if we let our scientists have access to more stem cell lines', he said during a Senate hearing concerning NIH funding. Although Zerhouni is believed to be a tacit supporter of ES cell research, the directness of the comment came as a surprise break with Bush administration policy. The White House spokesman, Tony Fratto, responded saying that President Bush's position remains unchanged and while that Zerhouni is entitled to his opinion, his role as an advocate of science is of a different nature from the President's job to 'balance the moral and scientific considerations of this nation'.
Such high level support of ES cell research comes as stem cell policy is once again under consideration by US lawmakers. The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which proposes to remove the current federal restrictions on ES cell research, is yet to be heard in the Senate after being passed by the House of Representatives last January. The White House has already indicated that President Bush is likely to veto the legislation if passed, since Bush has previously vetoed almost identical legislation. Commentators suggest Zerhouni's comment may now begin to stir debate within the Bush administration. 'I think it will certainly mobilize opinion up on [Capitol] Hill,' said Jerome Zack, a stem cell researcher from the University of California.
Members of the scientific community welcomed Zerhouni's comments. Robert Lanza, director of Advanced Cell Technology, said: 'Bravo, I think that's very courageous of him. He's right on in what stem cell researchers have been saying for years and years. The field has been crippled by lack of quality stem cell lines'. There is much debate in the US and elsewhere, between those against the destruction of human embryos - who claim that adult stem cells have great potential for cures, and research on embryos is unnecessary - and supporters of ES cell research, who claim that the unique totipotent nature of ES cells and their greater ability to be scaled up for clinical application make them an invaluable source for research. Zerhouni was also asked for his opinion on this debate. He replied that pro-adult stem cell views do not 'hold scientific water too well' and that 'all angles of stem cell research should be pursued'. It is 'in the best interest of our scientists, our science, our country that we find ways - that the nation finds a way to allow the science to go full speed on both adult and embryonic stem cell research,' he said.