Bush firm on stem cell funding: aide

WASHINGTON, Los Angeles Times

A top aide to President Bush said Sunday that the president would not support federal funding to increase the number of embryonic stem cell lines available for study even if scientists concluded that the existing supply was insufficient for research.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said that neither unexpected scientific breakthroughs nor unanticipated research problems would cause Bush to reconsider the strict limits on stem cell research funding he set last week.

In one of his administration’s most eagerly awaited decisions, Bush announced Thursday that while the federal government would fund research on stem cells already derived from surplus human embryos, it would not pay for research that destroyed additional embryos.

“That is the real distinguishing line, and that’s a high moral line that this president is not going to cross,” Thompson said on NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press.”

By drawing that line, Bush has tilted the debate away from politics and toward science. The administration has calculated that about 60 stem cell lines now exist, and Congress and the scientific community must determine whether that is enough to realize stem cells’ potential in curing disease.

Embryonic stem cells have the ability to grow in unlimited numbers and to transform themselves into many other cell types — nerve, bone, muscle and more. Scientists hope someday to fashion stem cells into replacement parts for patients.

Administration officials repeatedly insisted Sunday that 60 stem cell lines were ample. “We think there are more than enough lines around the world and in the United States to conduct this important research,” White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. said on ABC TV’s “This Week.”

Offering a window into Bush’s thinking, Card said the president would have set the same limits even if scientists at the National Institutes of Health had concluded that as few as a dozen stem cell lines were available for research. But, he added, “when the NIH did conduct this survey around the world and discovered that there were over 60 viable stem cell lines, it was quite comforting.”

Card did not close the door to reconsideration of the decision if researchers concluded the existing lines were inadequate.

Instead, he said, “That’s a hypothetical that I don’t think we’ll have to get to.”

But Democrats in support of embryonic stem cell research argue otherwise. “We know it’s not enough,” said Donna Shalala, former President Clinton’s secretary of Health and Human Services, on “Meet the Press.”

Some Democrats and researchers have questioned whether all of the 60 lines will be suitable for research or made available by the private companies that control some of them. Both Sens. Tom Harkin, Democrat-Iowa, and Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat-Massachusetts, announced that they will hold hearings next month exploring those questions.

Thompson said NIH officials think the availability of federal dollars would provide a sufficient lure to ensure broad access to the existing stem cell lines.

“In order to get to the cure stage, where the profits will probably be made, you have to do the basic research, and that’s what the federal research dollars will allow for,” he said.