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NIH Director Breaks From Bush, Calls For Repeal Of Stem Cell Ban

By Amanda Terkel

"NIH Director Breaks From Bush, Calls For Repeal Of Stem Cell Ban"

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When President Bush nominated Dr. Elias Zerhouni to be the nation’s top medical researcher — director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — he said that Zerhouni agreed to restrictions on embryonic cell stem research. 3/26/02:

Dr. Zerhouni shares my view that human life is precious, and should not be exploited or destroyed for the benefits of others. And he shares my view that the promise of ethically conducted medical research is limitless.

Zerhouni also reportedly “endorsed…in writing” a 2002 bill by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) that would impose criminal penalties on all attempts to “derive embryonic stem cells for disease research.” Bush currently has threatened to veto legislation to increase funding for embryonic stem cell research.

But yesterday, in “a high-profile dissent from Bush administration policy,” Zerhouni reversed course and criticized the Bush administration’s restrictions. He stated that “American science will be better served — and the nation will be better served — if we let our scientists have access to more cell lines that they can study with the different methods that have emerged since 2001.” Watch it:

[flv http://video.thinkprogress.org/2007/03/nihstemcell.320.240.flv]

As AP notes, “Zerhouni’s comments appear to be his strongest yet in support of lifting President Bush’s 2001 ban that restricted government funding to research using only embryonic stem cell lines then in existence. There are just 21 such lines now in use.” Story Landis, the NIH official overseeing Bush’s restrictive embryonic stem cell policy, also recently suggested that the President’s approach is delaying life-saving cures. (More on recent medical breakthroughs involving embryonic stem cells HERE.)

Transcript:

HARKIN: Would scientists have a better chance of finding these new cures, new interventions for diseases if the current restrictions on embryonic stem cell research were lifted?

ZERHOUNI: I think the answer is yes. My experience has been this. In 2001, I think the policy that was put in place was the first one to fund embryonic stem cell research. I think NIH has done a great job in the first three years of that, in establishing infrastructure, funding new scientists which weren’t fundable before. Since 2004, I think it’s very clear, from the point of view of science, and what I have overseen, that these cell lines won’t be sufficient to do all the research we need to do. For the reasons that you mentioned, but the most important one is that these cell lines have exhibited instability from the genetic standpoint, and it’s not possible for me to see how we can continue the momentum of science in stem cell research with the cell lines that we have currently at NIH that can be funded.

So from my standpoint, it is clear today, that American science will be better served — and the nation will be better served — if we let our scientists have access to more cell lines that they can study with the different methods that have emerged since 2001, the different strategies that we now understand, which underlie the fundamental issue, which is nuclear programming, or DNA programming, or reprogramming. So the answer is yes.

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