Bush's Stem Cell Decision: Are There Enough Existing Lines for Significant Research?

Today on Face the Nation, the stem cell research dilemma and the Bush agenda.

Three weeks ago when President Bush announced his decision to limit federal funding for stem cell research to existing lines, his administration said there were 60 available. Now reports indicate there may be a lot less. Are there enough for significant research? We'll ask Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson.

Should President Bush change his policy if the numbers have changed? We'll ask Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania and Dr. John Gearhart of John Hopkins University.

Then we'll turn to the Bush agenda for the fall and talk foreign policy with Tom Friedman of the New York Times and domestic politics with Dan Balz of the Washington Post.

But first, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson on Face the Nation.

So now joining us: from Madison, Wisconsin, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson; from Long Beach Island, New Jersey, Senator Arlen Specter; and here in our studio, Dr. John Gearhart. We're going to start first with Secretary Thompson.

Mr. Secretary, since the president announced his decision to allow federal funding for stem cell research on 64 existing stem cell lines, there's been a lot of controversy over that. You said at the time that these lines were, quote, "real, viable, and robust" and that you had checked and double-checked the availability of these lines.

Now we have had reports that somewhere between one-half and one-third of these lines are not so usable. Do you still stand by your original statement?

Tommy Thompson, HHS secretary: Absolutely. First off, let's set the record clear and correctly. First off, you couldn't do research on embryonic stem cells with federal funds prior to the president's announcement. He made a great announcement, and it came through.

Secondly, we made an assessment and we made an inventory, and a lot of people before that inventory didn't think there were more than ten or 15 or 20. There are 60 to 64 in different phases. Some are more robust and viable than others, but all 64 are qualified to be federally funded. And that's got to be brought into this perspective. Before the president's speech there was not federal funds; now there are.

And the third thing, there has been embryonic research done on mice for 20 years now, two decades, and 90% of that research has been on five lines. Dr. Jamie Thompson, who discovered the embryonic stem cells in 1998, he's got five lines, but most of his research is done on two lines. And Dr. McKay at NIH said that there's no question, if they even had one viable line that they would be able to do a lot of basic research. And what the federal government and the federal research is going to allow is the basic research.

Now, all of these lines are in different areas, different diversity and different cultures. And so, a lot of these experiments and research igoing to be carried on on lines that are more mature. Some of that research will be done on those lines that are just beginning. It takes approximately 6 months for a good embryonic stem cell line to get viable.

Let me turn to Senator Specter on this.

You've heard Secretary Thompson's explanation. He says there are enough lines to do viable research. Do you buy that?

Senator Arlen Spector: Gloria, I think that there are very many questions which will have to be addressed in congressional hearings. I thought the president made a very reasoned presentation, but I believe he's gotten bad information from what has developed since.

You had Goteborg University in Sweden represented to have 19 lines. It turns out they have only three. You had India, supposed to have seven lines; turns out that all seven are speculative. In San Diego, a US laboratory was supposed to have nine, and they are far from being viable.

And then you have the issue that the pesident did not address in his August 9 speech about therapy. And as information has come to light, we find that all of these cell lines have had nutrients from mice. And according to the Food and Drug Administration regulations, they cannot be used for therapy.

So that when you have a matter which is as important as this one with a potential to cure Parkinson's, delay Alzheimer's, perhaps cure cancer and heart ailments, these are major questions which I think have to be answered.

And the subcommittee, appropriations subcommittee, which I had chaired, which has had nine hearings, will be having two more hearings in September to answer these questions, to say if the federal program, the president's program, is sufficient.

Well, Secretary Thompson, do you believe, as Senator Specter believes, that you got some bad information here?

Thompson: No, I don't think so. I think the NIH--nobody has ever done an inventory. NIH made a complete, exhaustive inventory of all of the research lines that are available. And there are 64 that meet the president's criteria to be federally funded.

Now, first off, the basic research has got to be done. The basic research has not been completed, Gloria, and that has to be done before you can get to the next stage of therapy.

And a lot of people think that, you know, that the cures are right around the corner. And we have to get the basic research done. And that's where the federal dollars are going to come in and allow to us carry on in that federal research, and the next stage is the therapy.

And the private sector will be coming in and doing a lot of funding when it gets to that stage. But it's going to take some time to get there.

But we have enough lines to do the basic research. And that's what I think everybody has to understand. And we've got to get these scientists and get the federal dollars out there and begin this research so the questions that Senator Specter is talking about, th questions that a lot of people are talking about, are able to have some real concrete, empirical, scientific evidence behind them. That's what I want, and I know that's what NIH wants.

Well, let's go to a researcher here. I just want to go to Dr. Gearhart for one moment, because he is an actual researcher who has worked on stem cell lines.

From your point of view, first of all, what happened here? How do you think there was this confusion?

Dr. John Gearhart, Johns Hopkins University: Well, first, I do want to emphasize what the secretary said, that for the first time now we're able to use federal funds in this area.

But by the same token, there is a growing concern that our hands may be tied, from the standpoint of what cells actually are available. Yes, what was reported to the NIH were 64 cell lines. As we learned, and Senator Specter has mentioned, there are some problems arising with some of these lines.

But there's a third issue which I think hasn't been resolved--is being addressed now but hasn't been resolved. And that is, even if there are 30 lines or 20 lines or 15 lines, when will they be available to investigators--if they will be available to investigators--and under what conditions?

These companies and institutions have spent a good deal of money in deriving these lines, and certainly they would like to recover their investment. So this still has to be resolved as well.

Senator Specter, go ahead.

Spector: Well, on the question you raised about whether the president had the facts, let me be very specific. The representation was made that Goteborg University from Sweden had 19 stem cell lines. Dr. Lars Hamburger has been very specific that they only had three lines and had expressed surprise that a contrary representation would be made.

And then there are the questions which Dr. Gearhart raises about patents, property rights, about the sufficiency of informed consent.

Look here, Glori, my point is this. This is a very, very important matter, and there are a great many questions which the scientists have come forward with, really essentially saying, you shouldn't tie the hands of the scientists, as Dr. Gearhart has just said.

And the purpose of the congressional hearings will be to go into these details and to see if, when you have a cutoff date in absolute terms--nothing will be done on stem cells after August 9 with respect to federal funding--that raises the whole issue of therapy, and the existing lines are contaminated.

Senator Specter, let me ask you this very quickly: Do you believe that the administration, in taking its count, was deliberately optimistic here in order to justify its policy of federal funding for existing stem cell lines? Then I'd like the secretary to respond.

Spector: I've been asked whether the issue has been politicized, and I have said that I'm not going to make any charges like that.

But when you com down to one basic fact--and perhaps Secretary Thompson will want to respond to it--Dr. Lars Hamburger was quoted as saying that he flew from Sweden and talked specifically to Secretary Thompson, told him there weren't 19 lines from the Swedish laboratory, only three. And after that conversation was held, the Department of Health and Human Services continued to say there were 19 lines from Sweden.

Thompson: Well, first off, let me just point out there are 19 lines. They're in different areas of production and replication, but there are 19 lines from the Goteborg University that meet the president's guidelines. And that was what the inventory was all about.

And I did have a meeting with Dr. Hamburger but we did not discuss the number of lines specifically. We talked very tangentially about the fact that there are 19 lines, but there are different areas of production, different areas of maturity, different areas of replication.

But there are 19 lines that would qualify for federal funding. There are 64 lines that do qualify. But they're in different phases, different maturity. And all of these, hopefully, will be.

But even if there are not 64 that really are viable, that are necessary for research, there are plenty of lines that are. And WARF, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation here in Madison, has indicated they have five viable lines that will meet all of the researchers' basic needs right now.

And so, I don't think we should quibble about the numbers. I think what we have to do is get the scientists, get the money, get the dollars for research out there. Get the scientists into the laboratories and start doing the research.

Senator Specter and I both want embryonic stem cell research to go forward. Both of us want to be able to come up with some cures. Everybody in America, especially the president, wants that to take place. Now it's up to us to get the federal research dollars out there to do this basic research, and I think that point is being missed by a lot of people.

Well, Secretary Thompson, a lot of people say that, actually, the research dollars are going to start to disappear. Just last week somebody who was pledging $60 million to Stanford University said he didn't want to give the money to Stanford University because he felt the administration's policy was going to hold back research. So aren't you worried about that?

Thompson: I'm worried only about getting the national registry up; getting these embryonic stem cell lines available; getting the negotiations done so the scientists, the investigators, are able to get the federal dollars and start doing the basic research.

I think, once the basic research has been completed, I think people are going to come in from all over, and hopefully it's going to be as optimistic and as successful as every one of us want it to be.

And when that happens, I think there is going to be a lot more dollars available for the research ttak it to the next stage. And that next stage is the therapy stage, really coming up with the necessary drugs to solve some of these maladies that afflict every family in America.

I just want to go to the researcher here very quickly, the scientist.

Do you believe, Dr. Gearhart, that the money is going to disappear? And do you think you have enough stem cell lines?

Gearhart: Well, first, let me say on Secretary Thompson's remarks that, yes, five cell lines certainly would do the job to get started. And I agree with him, we should be in the laboratory working on these lines.

But eventually, you know, there is going to be a lot of necessary, formidable scientific challenge here to bring this research to the bedside, if you know what I mean. And I don't think these lines are going to suffice.

And I guess all the scientists are asking for at this point in time is that, if more lines are needed--as Senator Specter pointed out, all of the lines that exist already have been brought into existence using what we call feeder cells and whatnot. We've contaminated them, if you will, to a certain extent with mouse-based things, that we have to reestablish new lines without that product present.

And so eventually we would like to generate more lines. And if it's necessary, we would like to think that Mr. Bush would reconsider his policy.
©MMII CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed