By restricting research on stem cells, the Bush administration has
spurred many top U.S. science institutions to break from their
traditional reliance on federal research grants and strike out on their
own to keep the controversial field alive.
Stanford and Harvard, among other universities, have set up privately
funded programs, in some cases using labs separate from their main
campuses, to sidestep the federal restrictions. UCSF and Stanford have
raised $11 million and $12 million, respectively, while Harvard
reportedly hopes to raise $100 million.
the most ambitious proposal is a $3 billion bond measure that appears
headed for the November ballot. Designed to fuel stem-cell research at
California institutions, the initiative is backed by a coalition of
state scientists, private financiers and patient-advocacy groups.
of the "California Stem Cell Research and Cures Act" argue it will turn
the state into a world leader in stem-cell research. But the initiative
faces critics who object to the research on moral grounds, as well as
fiscal opponents who maintain the state can ill afford the program.
state -- New Jersey -- already has begun allocating millions of dollars
in state funds for stem-cell experiments. And at least five other
states are considering declarations of support for the research.
U.S. scientists argue that the Bush administration restrictions are
holding back progress. They insist that far more stem cell colonies are
needed than the 15 available for National Institutes of Health funding.
An additional 17 new lines recently were created at Harvard, which is
making them available to the growing network of stem cell laboratories
that say they can't rely on the NIH.
"Federal policies are actually inhibiting this research,'' said Keith Yamamoto, a professor and executive vice dean at UCSF.
research is one of the most promising fields of biology. These cells
are the early-stage cells that can form into any of the specialized
cells or tissues of the body. They were first isolated in 1998 from
human embryos left over from in vitro fertilization procedures.
hope the all-purpose cells can be fashioned into transplant material
for people with such diseases as diabetes, Parkinson's and spinal cord
injury. But the early investigations have been hampered by ethical and
religious concerns, because the embryos must be destroyed in order to
produce the stem cells.
In an attempt at
compromise, the Bush administration limited federal grants administered
by the NIH to research on only stem cells created before Aug. 2001,
when Bush announced the policy.
Bush said he
wanted to allow the science to go forward, even while preventing tax
money from financing work that involves any more destruction of human
embryos. But scientists say the result is a stagnant research
The NIH's program is based on "old
biology," said Dr. Evan Snyder, head of a stem-cell research program at
the Burnham Institute in La Jolla (San Diego County).
federally sanctioned stem cell lines are "good for generating
hypotheses," he said, but most of those lines were generated in "a
completely different, haphazard manner," making it impossible to
compare results from one cell group with another.
are unstable. Some do bizarre things. One line keeps developing
chromosomal abnormalities, spontaneously, no matter what anyone does.
You can't tell if that is in the nature of embryonic stem cells, or is
something about these cell lines in particular," Snyder said.
heads a fledgling private stem-cell consortium in Southern California.
The idea is to create a cooperative scientific infrastructure,
including networks of labs sharing stem-cell lines and other materials,
to fill the gap created by the NIH restrictions.But even the architects
of this approach acknowledge it's inadequate because of the need to
segregate labs by funding source and the reluctance of researchers
whose careers depend on NIH grants to get too involved. Elizabeth
Blackburn, a UCSF microbiologist and stem-cell research advocate,
argues the parallel system can never substitute for the NIH's
traditional leadership. Even if the California initiative succeeds, she
noted, its grants would be restricted essentially to free- standing
laboratories that would have to be kept separate from NIH-supported
"The NIH has done what it can do,"
she said. "The problem at the moment is there are so few researchers
who want to step into this mess, and work in a fire-walled, quarantined
facility. A few can manage, but that's not how you want biomedical
research to proceed."
In one of the latest signs
of how fractious the stem-cell business is becoming, Blackburn was
recently forced off a White House advisory council on bioethics, which
she said effectively censored her views from its reports. An essay she
wrote about her frustrations appears in the April 1 New England Journal
of Medicine, and was released online Friday. "There is a growing sense
that scientific research -- which, after all, is defined by the quest
for truth -- is being manipulated," Blackburn wrote.
White House spokeswoman has said that Blackburn's tenure on the panel
was up and that others with "different expertise and experience" were
Dr. James Battey, director of the NIH's
National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders and
head of a committee that oversees the NIH's stem-cell operation, said
he welcomed the creation of an independently financed research
"I'm happy to see progress made in
any way that progress can be made," he said. "We all share the same
goal. ... I think it's a very promising area of research. We need more
investment, more people, more approaches."
little sign, however, of any political consensus. Although pressure
from the scientific community is being felt at the White House to
loosen restrictions on stem cell research, Battey noted that's hardly
the only source of strong feelings on the issue.
are pressures from many, many constituencies on the policymakers," he
said, adding that he has been privy to no discussions with White House
officials hinting of any relaxation in the rules governing the NIH.
the merits of the scientific arguments, the ballot campaign in
California promises to be strongly colored by the emotion of religious
critics of stem-cell research on one side versus family members of
people with incurable diseases on the other.
me, it's life and death," said John Ames, a Marin County businessman
whose 40-year-old son was diagnosed last year with amyotrophic lateral
sclerosis, the invariably fatal muscle-weakening condition popularly
known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
"Mr. Bush is
wrong, wrong, wrong -- he could not be more wrong," said Don Reed, a
retired schoolteacher in Fremont whose son sustained a paralyzing neck
injury while he was playing football 1o years ago.
of them said they put their faith in stem cells as potential cures, and
called on the Bush administration to rethink its policies even while
they help gain signatures for the California measure. "The NIH has to
be part of this," Reed said.
At the same time,
opponents make clear that their qualms have not eased. Lately, they
argue that the adult-derived stem cells offer much more promise than
the embryonic cells, with none of the ethical baggage.
practical and scientific obstacles against embryonic stem cell
treatments loom larger than ever, and they are rapidly being outpaced
by advances in alternatives, including adult stem cells," said Richard
Doerflinger, deputy director of anti-abortion activities at the U.S.
Conference of Catholic Bishops.
conservatives may be joined in the opposing camp by critics concerned
about the financing of the proposed California initiative. The measure
is designed so that no payments would be due on the bonds for five
years, but critics argue it's still much too expensive a commitment for
"We support stem-cell research, but
this initiative may be the wrong way to do it," said Dr. Marcy
Darnovsky, associate director of the Center for Genetics and Society,
an Oakland-based, pro-choice public interest organization.
billion dollars, she said, "is a huge amount of public money, our state
is still broke, and our basic health care system is underfunded. The
initiative locks Californians into paying for one research program
among many promising possibilities, and it doesn't do enough to prevent
misuses of cloning."
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