Did the President Go Far Enough? Many Scientists Say the Limits Bush Has Placed on Stem-Cell Research Could Severely Inhibit Life-Saving Medical Advances
To scientists who had, for weeks, hoped against hope that President George W. Bush would allow federal money to support research on embryonic stem cells, the only good thing about his decision was that it wasn't worse. Bush announced that he would permit government funding--in practical terms, grants by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to scientists at universities and hospitals--for experiments only on existing stem-cell lines. "Bush exceeded the very low expectations scientists had for him," says Dr. Joseph J. Fins of New York's Weill Cornell Medical Center. "It's certainly better than an outright embargo." But not by much, concluded many stem-cell biologists. Restricting NIH support to experiments on cells that are already growing in labs "is going to delay substantially the progress we have to bring [stem-cell] therapies to the bedside," says stem-cell pioneer John Gearhart of Johns Hopkins University. By so limiting the research, agrees Dr. Michael Soules, president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, Bush "will severely inhibit our ability to unlock the huge potential of embryonic stem cells."
Although that might sound like grousing from scientists who resent brakes on controversial research, there were sound reasons for concern over Bush's decision. Stem cells, as the nation's recent crash course in biology has taught, come from days-old embryos the size of the dot over this i. At this stage, the embryo, created in a fertility clinic, is a hollow sphere; the inner cells are the now-famous stem cells. They have the potential to develop and differentiate into any of the 200-plus kinds of cells in the human body, from heart to bone, and are thus called pluripotent. Every time scientists isolate stem cells, and grow them in a nutrient medium in the lab, they create a "cell line." Biologist James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin created the first such colony in 1998. Today, the NIH determined, 60 stem-cell lines exist in the world: in the United States, Israel, Australia, Sweden, India and Singapore.
Stem cells' talent for propagating would make a dandelion jealous. Since they are endlessly self-renewing, producing countless identical progeny, 60 lines should produce as many stem cells as scientists could possibly need. But "should" is not "will." Stem cells sometimes get, well, stale. "We don't know if the cells have been transformed in any way so that they've become biologically different from those of the days-old embryo," says Cornell's Fins. If so, they may have lost their pluripotency, the trait that makes stem cells so valuable in the first place. And stem cells can "crash." Of the six colonies created by the biotech firm Geron Corp., four are too unstable to be of any use. To think that the promise of stem cells--treating Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's, spinal-cord injury, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart disease and so many other killers--can be realized through research only on existing cell lines, says Evan Snyder of Harvard University, "is scientifically naive."
Even if the 60 stem-cell lines hold up biologically, there might be other barriers to getting the most out of them. The University of Wisconsin holds the patent on isolating pluripotent stem cells from embryos; Thomson's nonprofit WiCell Research Institute has distributed his cells to 30 institutions and has a backlog of 70 requests. …