Attempting to find middle ground in the contentious debate over human embryonic stem cells, President George W. Bush announced 9 August that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will be allowed to fund work with embryonic stem (ES) cell lines--but only those lines that have already been derived. In an 11-minute speech on national television, the president described ES cell research as "a complex and difficult issue, an issue that is one of the most profound of our time."
Embryonic stem cells can develop into any cell type in the body, and many scientists suspect they can be used to treat chronic diseases such as diabetes or Parkinson's disease. However, the work is controversial because the cells are derived from week-old human embryos. NIH issued guidelines last summer to govern work on the cells, but this spring the Bush Administration halted the process that was to review the first grant applications, saying it wanted to evaluate the issue (ScienceNOW, 9 April).
Last night, Bush announced the results of his months of deliberations: Federal funding is permitted, but only for research on cell lines already established from embryos discarded by fertility clinics. A White House spokesperson said last night that stem cell lines derived after 9 August 2001 will not be eligible for NIH funding. When the White House leaked a very similar compromise in July, reaction from both sides was strongly negative (Science, 13 July, p. 186). Then, as now, opponents of ES cell work say the fact that embryos have already been killed does not diminish the moral problems. Scientists worry that too few cell lines will be available to fully determine the potential of the cells. There is also concern that many of the existing cell lines have commercial strings attached to them that could limit research.
Another question has some researchers scratching their heads. Bush claimed that 60 stem cell lines are available for research. But fewer than a dozen human ES cell lines have been described in peer-reviewed papers. "If there are 60 cell lines, that's news to me--and good news," says cell biologist Douglas Melton of Harvard University, who has been working with both animal and human ES cells. However, he cautioned, it is not yet clear what the properties of those cell lines are nor who owns intellectual property rights to them.