U researchers react to stem cell decision

Liz Kohman

President George W. Bush said Thursday he will allow federal funding for embryonic stem cell research with existing stem cell lines.

Bush announced the decision during his first televised address to the nation.

He also established a presidential council to monitor stem cell research and recommend guidelines. He appointed Leon Kass, a biomedical ethicist who has spoken against the use of embryonic stem cells for research, to chair the commission.

Bush offered further explanation of his policy in a column he wrote for the Sunday edition of The New York Times, describing the ethical decision concerning stem cell research as pitting “good against good.”

“While it is unethical to end life in medical research, it is ethical to benefit from research where life and death decisions have already been made,” Bush wrote.

The use of embryonic stem cells leads to the destruction of an embryo. These embryos are left over from in vitro fertilization and would be thrown away.

Stem cells offer scientific promise because they are cells that can be coaxed into becoming different types of cells. Scientists involved with the research think stem cells could offer cures to diseases from Alzheimer’s to Parkinson’s.

University researchers in the Stem Cell Institute use only adult stem cells derived from bone marrow instead of embryos. But they have discussed collaborating with University of Wisconsin-Madison’s stem cell researchers – who use embryonic stem cells – to do comparative research.

Scientists are unsure if both types of stem cells offer equal benefits for research.

Jeffrey Kahn, director of the Center for Bioethics, said there is a reason for people on all sides of the debate to find promise or worry in Bush’s position.

“I think it’s a good start,” he said. “And it shows a willingness on the part of the administration to support federally-funded stem cell research.”

John Wagner, scientific director of clinical research for the Stem Cell Institute, said Bush’s decision will not have a big impact on stem cell research.

Wagner said Bush didn’t address other aspects of embryo research, such as the possibility of diagnosing disease within embryos.

He also said he hoped the presidential council on stem cell research would be able to present a balanced view to the president.

“Over the past year, we’ve had no real direct access in getting information to (the president) and the people in Congress,” he said. “So I think that’s a very positive effect, but that’s also presuming the chairman will create a balanced committee.”

Lawrence Jacobs, a political science professor who studies public opinion and presidential decision-making, said Bush chose this issue to project an image of a competent leader capable of moderate action.

“What you saw the president doing was trying to weave together a policy that would reassure at least most, if not all, social conservatives in the Republican Party, while also sending a signal to America that this was someone who could be pragmatic and reasonable,” Jacobs said.

The reactions of politicians and political groups represent the ethical divide created by embryonic stem cell research.

Senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) said he was disappointed with Bush’s decision.

“The sharp limitation of federal support may well close the door on some of the life-saving promise of embryonic stem cell research, which can be conducted consistent with the basic ethical and legal principles that respect the value of human life,” Wellstone said in a statement released Friday.

Wellstone said he supported current National Institutes of Health guidelines.

Other groups have supported Bush’s position.

Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life released a statement in favor of Bush’s position, noting research using stem cells derived from blood and bone marrow would not be affected.

“We are delighted that President Bush’s decision prevents the federal government from becoming a party to any further killing of human embryos for medical experimentation,” said Jackie Schietz, MCCL executive director, in the statement.