WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A senior U.S. National Institutes of Health official said on Friday President George W. Bush’s limits on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research have blocked potential medical breakthroughs.
The comments by Story Landis, director of the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, came as supporters of a bill to lift Bush’s restrictions make a push for Senate passage in the coming weeks.
Bush used the only veto of his presidency last July to reject an identical bill and has promised another veto.
Democrats who seized control of Congress in November elections have made its passage a high priority. It cleared the House of Representatives on January 11 by a vote of 253-174, short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.
Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts asked Landis during a Senate hearing to assess the impact of Bush’s restrictions, imposed in August 2001.
“We are missing out on possible breakthroughs,” Landis responded.
Advocates of such research call it the best hope for potential cures for ailments such as Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and spinal cord injuries. But because such research requires destruction of days-old embryos, opponents call it immoral.
Landis said there is a “compelling need to pursue both embryonic and non-embryonic stem cell research,” and no one can predict which might lead to cures.
“Therefore, NIH should support research on stem cells from both embryonic and other sources,” Landis said.
“Science works best when scientists can pursue all avenues of research,” Landis said. “If the cure for Parkinson’s disease or juvenile diabetes lay behind one of four doors, wouldn’t you want the option to open all four doors at once instead of one door?”
Stem cells are a kind of master cell for the body, capable of growing into various tissue and cell types. Those taken from days-old embryos are especially malleable but “adult” stem cells found in babies and adults also have shown promise.
Many scientists hope to exploit the unique qualities of these cells to repair tissue damaged by disease or injury.
Two stem cell researchers and Lauren Stanford, a diabetic 15-year-old Massachusetts girl, pleaded with the senators to pass the bill. No witnesses opposing it were called.
Some Republican senators against the measure emphasized their support for “adult” stem cell research not requiring embryo destruction.
“Let’s make sure we understand the dividing line,” said Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a doctor who has delivered 4,000 babies. “Some of us very earnestly believe life begins at conception.
“I can tell you that you’re going to get a veto,” Coburn told the bill’s supporters.
Kennedy said he expected the Senate to consider the bill in February and appealed to Bush to “re-examine his conscience.”
Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, who opposes abortion but supports embryonic stem cell research, held up a pair of handcuffs from “one of my Secret Service buddies” to make the point that Bush’s policy binds scientists’ hands.
Bush’s 2001 policy limited federal funding to research on the human embryonic stem cell colonies, or lines, that existed at that time. Scientists say many of those roughly 20 lines are deteriorating, contaminated or obsolete.
The bill would allow federal funding for research involving additional stem cell lines derived from leftover embryos created at fertility clinics destined otherwise to be destroyed because they will not be used to make babies.
By Will Dunham