Eighty Nobel Prize winners have signed a letter urging President Bush to allow work on human pluripotent stem cells to go forward. In a letter faxed to the White House this morning, they argue that the cells--which have the capacity to develop into any tissue type--could help treat a variety of diseases. The Bush Administration is under pressure from antiabortion groups to block funding for work on the cells.
Teams around the world are working on strategies to prompt stem cells to replace dead cells in diseases like Parkinson's or diabetes. Some of this research is on cells derived from aborted fetuses or days-old human embryos. Opponents of such research argue that some studies have shown that stem cells from adults could produce the same results without the ethical problems. But the Nobel laureates' letter calls this assertion "premature." Stem cells from adults may prove very useful, says signatory Paul Berg, a biochemist at Stanford University, but "we can't ignore the potential of embryonic stem cells. ... We should be proceeding full-speed along both tracks."
Shortly after his inauguration, Bush ordered a review of the current National Institutes of Health (NIH) policy, which allows the funding of embryonic stem cell studies as long as researchers receive the cells from privately funded researchers who have derived them in accord with a set of ethical guidelines (ScienceNOW, 23 August 2000). (For example, applicants must certify that the cells were derived from embryos that were created for fertility treatments but were slated to be discarded because they were no longer needed.) The next deadline for submitting applications for such work is 15 March, and, barring a change in policy, applications will be reviewed by an ethics board in April.
The letter was written and circulated by researchers Robert Lanza and Michael West of Advanced Cell Technology, a biotechnology company in Worcester, Massachusetts. The duo, with many of the same laureates, signed a similar letter in 1999 urging Harold Varmus, then NIH director, to go forward with a plan to fund work on the cells (Science, 19 March 1999, p. 1849). That letter was "successful," says Lanza, who hopes the current letter will show the president that "the scientific community is unified in support of this research."