GRETCHEN: Dr. Healy, the President mentioned that he will allow funding for 60 lines of stem cell research already in progress. What can you tell us about those experiments that are already underway?
DR. HEALY: What this means is that NIH-funded scientists can actually use those cell lines. Up until now, they havent been able to use those cell lines, because those cells came from embryos. What the President said was still off-limits, was creating new embryos either from cloning or creating in the laboratory, or thawing out spare embryos from parents who had done IVF, and had some frozen embryos. He said no to that. And I think people probably were surprised at the fact that he said only yes to the existing stem cells.
GRETCHEN: So, were supposed to assume then, that the so-called excess embryos from fertility clinics will continue to be thrown away, as they were before?
DR. HEALY: Thats correct. At least not used for NIH-funded research. Remember, the issue here is doing, harvesting cells from a living, growing human embryo. And the President said no to that. He said if the stem cells already exist, and the decision was already made about life or death, then scientists can use them. Up until now, scientists have not been able to use those embryonic stem cells.
GRETCHEN: Now, how will this affect private funding? Has this sort of research already been going on with private funds?
DR. HEALY: It has been, but not in a substantial way. When you dont have NIH funding NIH funds most of the basic research in this country, actually in the world, and when you dont have NIH funding, the research tends to be done in peripheral laboratories; it doesnt move very quickly; it doesnt have the best scientists working on it, or the best medical centers. And also, when NIH funding is involved, there tend to be guidelines and oversight that often does not exist in a non-government funded setting.
GRETCHEN: And how will this decision be seen by scientists a few years down the road? I think a lot of people are wondering that. Is this enough of a victory for them to achieve some of the breakthroughs theyve been talking about, in the next couple of months?
DR. HEALY: It certainly means theyll be able to work with these cell lines, which they havent been able to do, and it certainly means that they have an opportunity to show whether or not the opportunities and the promise are there with these cell lines. Theres been a lot of talk and a lot of promises. And I think this is the time for scientists to get to work and to show the value of these embryonic cell lines. The fact that the president created this new council for oversight certainly leaves the possibility open that there could be other decisions made in the future, if in fact these cell lines prove to be extrmely promising. Right now, we dont know. Certainly the President has opened the door to answer some of those important questions.
GRETCHEN: One of the phrases you keep saying is cell lines. For our viewers, and for most of us here in the media, its so confusing, and such a complicated topic. When you say cell lines and the 60 lines he said would be okay for federal funds, what do you mean by cell lines?
DR. HEALY: These are not embryos. What these are, are single cells that are reproducing themselves in a cell culture. So, its a primitive cell that has the ability to keep reproducing, and that you can go in and give it certain growth factors and have it become a heart cell or a brain cell, or a pancreas cell. It is not a whole organism. A human embryo is a whole organism. As it develops, it eventually grows into a human being, into an infant, into a baby. So, the difference is, one is an organism, a living, growing embryo or fetus. The other is just a group, a blob of cells, that are in the lab, that are very, very powerful, because of this embryonic capabilitythe ability to form multiple, different cell lines, and perhaps tissue lines.
GRETCHEN: Now, can these cell lines then continue to regenerate over time, or do we eventually run out of them?
DR. HEALY: The power of the embryonic cell lines is that they do seem to regenerate almost forever, I mean in perpetuity. They dont stop after one or two cell divisions, and for that reason, there indeed is going to be a plentiful supply of them. That is not the case for some other cell lines, so the embryonic cell line has that quality of almost perpetual reproduction, but also the ability to go in different pathways, to go toward a nerve cell, to go toward a heart cell. But it is not an intact organism. An embryo has the potential to be a growing organism. If you allow it to develop, eventually it develops brain and heart and kidneys and lungs. So they are two separate kinds of tissue. One is a living, growing embryo; the others are living, growing cells in a very primitive state that have powerful capacity to develop into specific cell lines.
GRETCHEN: Thank you so much, Dr. Bernadine Healy.