Patients Will Suffer From Bush Policy on Stem-Cell Funds

Posted August 14, 2003 at 10:17am

Whether or not President Bush hyped the evidence to justify war with Iraq, there’s no question that he did so two years ago to sell his decision limiting federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. [IMGCAP(1)]

On Aug. 9, 2001, in a nationally televised address, Bush claimed that “more than 60” stem-cell lines, or batches, existed for potentially life-saving medical research.

In fact, as documented by author Stephen Hall, no more than a dozen lines exist — and not all of them are freely available to scientists or free from contamination.

Hall has written an awesomely thorough and yet amazingly readable book, “Merchants of Immortality,” on the science, politics, personalities, financing — and exaggeration — of medical research designed to extend the human lifespan.

Much of the book concerns the controversies over stem cells. Located in the inner core of days-old embryos, they eventually develop into all the organs of the body.

It’s been demonstrated in the laboratory and in animals that stem cells can be kept alive indefinitely and can be used for the regeneration of ailing organs, potentially curing an array of diseases.

But there’s been intense opposition, mainly from religious conservatives, to any research involving human embryos — including, during past decades, even in vitro fertilization that has now enabled thousands of previously infertile couples to have children.

The controversy that Bush addressed in 2001 concerned the use of “leftover” embryos at in vitro clinics for stem-cell research. It’s believed there are more than 100,000 of them — frozen, but destined for eventual destruction.

Despite this certain fate, right-to-life groups oppose use of the embryos for stem-cell research because they will be destroyed in the process of extracting the stem cells.

After long and cautious hesitation, the outgoing Clinton administration OKed federal funding of research on such embryos, but no actual grants were ever made and funding was frozen when Bush, who’s anti-abortion, came to office.

A huge national controversy developed as Bush considered whether to ban the research permanently. Arcane science suddenly became the stuff of front-page news stories and TV talks shows — mainly because the decision was a test pitting Bush’s fealty to the religious right against his compassion for disease victims.

His August 2001 decision was advertised as a compromise. Funding could go forward for research on already-existing cell lines from previously destroyed embryos, but not on lines derived after that date. Bush assured scientists that “more than 60” such lines existed.

As Hall wrote in a New York Times op-ed article in June, some scientists at the National Institutes of Health “were flabbergasted when the president uttered that number” and it was immediately challenged by other researchers.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson stoutly defended the number at first and his department ultimately issued a “registry” listing 71 lines. But he admitted in Senate testimony that only two dozen lines existed. Hall says that 12, worldwide, is the currently accepted number.

Bush’s prohibition on funding of research on new cell lines, Hall writes in his book, “vastly increases the odds that progress, if it occurs at all, will be slow” because “all the pre-Aug. 9 cell lines have been kept alive by a contaminating layer of mouse cells, which might pass disease-causing viruses to the human cells.”

As a result of the Bush decision, stem-cell research has to proceed privately or overseas. In an interview, Hall told me that most of the U.S. companies doing the work are underfinanced, so countries such as England, Sweden, China and Israel likely will outstrip the United States in medical development.

A current controversy surrounds cloning of embryos for research, which Bush wants to outlaw. The House has passed a ban on all cloning — practically everyone opposes it for reproductive purposes — but it is unlikely to pass the Senate.

As a result of a political stalemate between pro-life and pro-science forces, Hall notes, practically all reproductive science in the United States proceeds without federal funding or regulation and often without even peer review.

In Britain, by contrast, a government agency keeps track of all embryos created in in vitro clinics and by cloning and requires that embryos can’t be gestated for more than 14 days.

Hall argues for federal support of robust scientific inquiry. One of the most compelling pieces of testimony he cites actually is from an anti-abortion Senator, Gordon Smith (R-Ore.)

At a Senate hearing in July 2001, prior to the Bush decision, Smith said, “I believe that life begins in a mother’s womb, not in a scientist’s laboratory. Indeed, scientists tell me that nearly one half of fertilized eggs never attach to a mother’s womb, but naturally slough off. Surely, life is not being taken here, by God or anyone else.

“For me, being pro-life means helping the living as well. So, if I err at all on this issue, I choose to err on the side of hope, healing and health.”

It’s sad that President Bush doesn’t share this compassionate view