NIH Director Breaks With Bush Policy, Wants Limits Eased on Stem Cell Research
March 20, 2007
The director of the National Institutes of Health told a Senate panel March 19 that American scientists would be better served if they had access to more embryonic stem cell lines and federal funding restrictions imposed in 2001 were lifted.
The comments were Elias A. Zerhouni's boldest statement to date in favor of changing a policy implemented by President Bush. The president already has vetoed legislative attempts to change the policy, and has promised to veto them again if a House-passed bill (H.R. 3) is approved by the Senate, as is expected.
While Zerhouni--whom President Bush appointed in 2002--has said publicly that scientists need access to more stem cell lines, it is his first congressional testimony openly supporting a policy change. At a House appropriations hearing March 6, Zerhouni said that "I am convinced we need to really allow our scientists to do more of what we need to do." However, he did not specifically comment on the president's policy during that hearing.
Zerhouni made his latest comments in a response during a budget hearing to a question from Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies.
'The Answer Is Yes.'
Harkin asked whether scientists would have a better chance of finding cures "if current restrictions were lifted," so that they could use federal dollars on research using embryonic stem cell lines created after Aug. 9, 2001. "It's clear today that American scientists would be better served if we allowed our scientists to have access to more cell lines," Zerhouni said. "So the answer is yes."
Harkin and subcommittee ranking member Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) are also the primary supporters of S. 5, a bill identical to H. 3 that would allow excess embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics to be used for medical research. The Senate is expected to vote on the bill in April.
The agency "has done a great job" in overseeing the stem cell research since 2001, the NIH director said. However, since 2004 those lines have exhibited instability and have proven to be contaminated with mouse feeder cells, he said.
"Since 2004, it's very clear from the point of view of science that these cell lines will not be sufficient to do all the research we need to do," he said.
Harkin called Zerhouni's comments "courageous."
Stem cell research is really about understanding how DNA is programmed and reprogrammed, Zerhouni said, and therefore scientists should be allowed to pursue all angles of stem cell research, because embryonic stem cells represent unprogrammed DNA, whereas adult stem cells are programmed.
"It's basically the software of life that we're talking about," he said.
Patchwork of Regulations
Further, Zerhouni said that NIH--the world's largest biomedical organization--needs to oversee this area of research, and not let it be regulated by a patchwork of state and local laws. The agency has the depth and oversight system to oversee the research, he said, and it was time for national policy makers to find common ground, so NIH can continue to maintain its role as the nation's leader of biomedical research.
"This is not a one-mile race; this may be a marathon," he said.
Zerhouni referred to the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee that NIH formed in the late 1970s, giving NIH the lead in a new field of research that eventually led to the biotechnology industry.
"This is the kind of role NIH can play," he said. "It's important for us not to function with one hand tied behind our backs."
Zerhouni was testifying at a Senate hearing on the NIH budget, which President Bush proposed at $28.9 billion for fiscal year 2008, a slight increase over the president's proposal for 2007. However, the White House's fiscal 2008 proposed appropriation is the same as the actual amount NIH will receive in fiscal 2007, because of a joint funding resolution that added $620 million to the agency's budget.
Harkin said that, with inflation, NIH funding has dropped by about 13 percent in real terms since the budget was doubled in 2003.
"That cut threatens to squander our nation's investment in biomedical research, delay new cures and treatments, and discourage the next generation of young investigators from entering the field," the Iowa senator said.
Specter said he and Harkin plan to go to the Senate floor and request more money for NIH. While not giving a dollar amount, Specter said they will request "the most we think we can get that's realistic."
"Health is our most important capital asset. Without health care, there's nothing any of us could do," Specter said. "The best way to reduce health care costs is to eliminate the majority of maladies to prevent illness. We are blind to this very, very important objective."
A report by a group of university scientists released directly after the Senate hearing said that stagnant funding of the NIH could lead NIH to lose its place as the world's leader in biomedical research. According to the report, 80 percent of grant applications are unfunded, and certain NIH components, such as the National Cancer Institute, report that they can fund just 11 percent of research project grant applications.
The group maintained that perennially flat funding of NIH has halted promising research in mid-stream, challenged seasoned researchers to continue to achieve scientific progress, and threatened the future of young investigators pursuing careers in academic research. If left unaddressed, these problems could undermine U.S. global leadership in biomedical research, the report warns.
The report, "Within Our Grasp--Or Slipping Away? Assuring a New Era of Scientific and Medical Progress," argues that research momentum gains have slowed, and in some cases may be lost, if flat funding continues
"The number of drugs moving into the pipeline that are based on our new, more profound genetic and molecular understanding of cancer is extraordinary--and there's no money to handle the testing of these compounds," Joan Brugge, chair of the Department of Cell Biology at Harvard Medical School and co-author of the report, said in a press statement.
Zerhouni's prepared testimony is available at http://www.nih.gov/about/director/budgetrequest/fy2008directorssenatebudgetrequest.htm . The report, "Within Our Grasp--Or Slipping Away? Assuring a New Era of Scientific and Medical Progress," is available at http://hms.harvard.edu/public/news/nih_funding.pdf.