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Obama Policy Shift Reopens Debate on Stem Cell Research

March 9, 2009 at 6:25 PM EST
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President Barack Obama moved Monday to lift funding limits on embryonic stem cell research. Experts weigh how the decision fits into the president's broader approach to science.
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GWEN IFILL: Now a closer look at the policy change on stem cell research and where it fits into the president’s broader approach toward science.

We have two views. Dr. Irv Weissman is director of the Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at Stanford University. He attended today’s White House ceremony.

And we hope to be joined shortly by Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, a conservative political advocacy group. He, we hope, will be joining us tonight from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Dr. Weissman, I want to start by asking you to explain exactly, how significant is it what the president did today?

IRVING WEISSMAN, Stanford University: It was a fantastic change, because two things happened. First, the president said, “I’m going to let scientists do science. I’m going to remove politics, religion, and ideology from that.”

The second thing he said is, “I’m going to allow all the scientists in the United States to apply for funds to do embryonic stem cell research or pluripotent stem cell research, all the scientists in the United States, not just those in California and those states that already fund it.”

GWEN IFILL: Well, we’re going to take this a bit at a time, but let’s start by reminding people exactly of what is significant about embryonic stem cell research as opposed to adult stem cell research, which was never prohibited.

IRVING WEISSMAN: Right. And I want to start by saying I’m an adult stem cell researcher. My lab isolated blood-forming and other tissue-forming stem cells. We were also the ones to show that blood-forming stem cells make blood and nothing else. It is not true that adult stem cells of one type can make another tissue.

On the other hand, embryonic stem cells at the earliest stage of development, as they develop in a test tube, can make every kind of tissue. We surmise, then, every kind of stem cell.

They’ll allow us to move much faster to find, for example, a lung stem cell, a kidney stem cell, a heart stem cell, a liver stem cell. Those are the stem cells we don’t have; yet all of us wish to have those organs and those tissues regenerated when things go wrong.

Effects of the ban

Irving Weissman
Stanford University
In places like California where we can do embryonic stem cell research funded by the state, we had to keep completely separate bureaucracies and accounts and new buildings.

GWEN IFILL: What's been the practical effect of this ban that was imposed eight years ago? Is it that all research stopped? Or was it just that it had to come from a different funding stream?

IRVING WEISSMAN: It stopped the research on any new embryonic stem cell lines. That meant everybody had to work with those lines which we knew from the beginning, because they were cultured with mouse cells, could be infected with mouse viruses.

The second part is that, in places like California where we can do embryonic stem cell research funded by the state, we had to keep completely separate bureaucracies and accounts and new buildings. We wasted a lot money and a lot of time building a new infrastructure that never had a federal dollar in it so that we could do this research. Now all of that will go away.

And it's nice to see a Democratic president reducing the bureaucracy so that we can do this kind of research.

GWEN IFILL: We are joined now by Tony Perkins in Baton Rouge.

Mr. Perkins, welcome.

TONY PERKINS, Family Research Council: Thank you. Good evening.

GWEN IFILL: So give me a sense of what your reaction is to the president's action today?

TONY PERKINS: Well, obviously concerned. We're supportive of science, good science, science that is both ethical and effective. And, you know, very concerned about where science could lead us unbridled by any type of ethical constraints.

And so I think it's going to be very important what the rules are here, but we're still talking about the destruction of human embryos in this embryonic stem cell research.

GWEN IFILL: You say unbridled by any ethical research restraints. There is still -- I think it's called the Dickey-Wicker amendment on the books, right, which still bans the creation -- use of tax dollars to create or destroy embryos, right?

TONY PERKINS: Right. What this does is, I think as the doctor was just explaining, it expands beyond the existing stem cell lines that President Bush limited it to. So it is not -- this is not a total overhaul. This is what I would say is the first step, and I think the doctor would admit that, that this is the first step.

There will be, I'm sure, a very intense legislative debate over the Dickey-Wicker amendment, whether or not that stays on the appropriations. That's something that has to be done every year. It's what's called a rider, which has to be assertively put on. It's not automatically there.

Investing in research

Tony Perkins
Family Research Council
I think this president had a mandate from the voters to address the economic issues. And as he gets off into more controversial social issues and controversial science such as embryonic stem cell research, I think he loses the mandate of the public.

GWEN IFILL: But do you feel that, with the president's action today, that makes the chances, especially with Democratic increases in the House and the Senate, that makes it more likely now that that might disappear, as well?

TONY PERKINS: I think that's true. I think that, with this step, you're going to see an effort to remove those limitations on the use of tax dollars.

And I think, you know, when the Americans look at this and this whole issue, I think this president had a mandate from the voters to address the economic issues. And as he gets off into more controversial social issues and controversial science such as embryonic stem cell research, I think he loses the mandate of the public.

And it certainly doesn't do anything to benefit people when it comes to jobs and comes to putting food on the table when we're talking about limited research dollars. We're just advocating they be put into good research, research that has produced, such as adult stem cell, which I know the doctor has done.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Dr. Weissman to respond to that.

IRVING WEISSMAN: Well, the first is, when we started doing this kind of research under the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, Prop 71, we, of course, accepted oversight that had to do with medical ethics and bioethics. So it's not true that the president left this now open for unbridled, unethical research. We always know that we are doing what the taxpayer asks us what to do, advanced medical science.

TONY PERKINS: And who's going to provide those -- who's going to provide those guidelines?

GWEN IFILL: That's the question. You say no one?

IRVING WEISSMAN: Well, the NIH must provide them. The NIH has before.

TONY PERKINS: But that's this -- but that's -- what we basically have is the scientists will be deciding what the scientists can do.

GWEN IFILL: And who should be?

TONY PERKINS: Well, I mean, I think -- I clearly think that the representatives of the people whose tax dollars are being used for this. I mean, but I guess I would ask the doctor, what is too far? I mean, we're talking about human cloning. You know, how far can we go? I mean, in terms of -- as he sees this being ethical, how far could we go?

Obama opposes human cloning

Irving Weissman
Stanford University
We made human-mouse chimeras with blood-forming stem cells, and the FDA said that was a necessary path before we could treat humans. Raising the idea by saying the word "chimera," that this is something wrong, is false.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me -- the president did say today that he still opposed human cloning, didn't he?

IRVING WEISSMAN: And I was the head of the National Academy's panel that said unanimously we should oppose human reproductive cloning because it was, at least from the animal studies, unsafe, dangerous for the fetus, dangerous for the mother. This has nothing to do with cloning.

TONY PERKINS: But what about -- well, what about the cloning for...

IRVING WEISSMAN: This has to do with...

TONY PERKINS: Well, no...

GWEN IFILL: Just a moment, Mr. Perkins. I'll get right to you.

IRVING WEISSMAN: This has to do with biomedical research. Now, when I want to do embryonic stem cell research with the NIH, I apply with a grant. That doesn't mean I get to do it. It means I get to apply to do it.

And it will be looked at for its scientific merit, for any medical, ethical issues, any economic issues. So it's not true what Mr. Perkins says.

TONY PERKINS: Wait a minute. You said that you oppose human cloning for reproduction, but what about human cloning for experimentation?

IRVING WEISSMAN: I think that it is critical to find safe and good ways to re-program adult stem cells to the pluripotent embryonic stem cell way. We have two ways...

TONY PERKINS: No, you avoided my question.

IRVING WEISSMAN: Hang on. Hang on. We have two ways to do it. One is nuclear transfer, which, by the way, if it makes a blastocyst, has very little or no chance of making a human being, so it's not going to make a clone.

GWEN IFILL: I'd like to step in here because I really want to broaden the conversation out, because what the president also said in a separate memo, Mr. Perkins, is that he wanted to -- he called it a false choice between science and moral values. And he's talking about rolling back the entire relationship between government and the scientific community.

Do you see this as the beginning of a slippery slope? Or do you see this as something else?

TONY PERKINS: Well, again, I think there should be ethical restraints. I don't think that you can just say, well, the scientists can determine what those ethics are. I mean, can we put human cells into animal cells? I mean, can we take and transplant human brain cells into animals? I mean, how far will we go?

Will we make chimeras? What type of research can we do? How long can we allow these embryos to grow before we harvest the stem cells or harvest organs? I mean, those are very real issues that have moral implications which need to be addressed.

GWEN IFILL: Dr. Weissman?

IRVING WEISSMAN: So we made human-mouse chimeras with blood-forming stem cells, and the FDA said that was a necessary path before we could treat humans. Raising the idea by saying the word "chimera," that this is something wrong, is false.

And what it does is it opens up the idea that there are many areas of research which could lead to medical advances that we're going to block because, for some reason, he wouldn't like to have human cells tested in a mouse.

Reaction from scientific community

Tony Perkins
Family Research Council
We were told when Bill Clinton came into office, and he removed the prohibition against the use of fetal tissue, federal dollars to do experimentation on fetal tissue, we had to have fetal tissue. It was going to solve all of these problems.

GWEN IFILL: What about science beyond just a discussion about human cells and stem cells, Mr. Perkins? This whole idea, the relationship in the last eight years between the administration and the scientific community at large, it's not been a friendly one. Does that change now?

TONY PERKINS: Well, I mean, I don't know. I guess if you let them do whatever they want, then I guess they're your friend. I don't know.

I mean, we had a very similar debate, you know, with the use of fetal tissue. We were told when Bill Clinton came into office, and he removed the prohibition against the use of fetal tissue, federal dollars to do experimentation on fetal tissue, we had to have fetal tissue. It was going to solve all of these problems.

We don't hear anything about fetal tissue anymore because those that were actually treated when it was approved actually got worse.

GWEN IFILL: And there...

TONY PERKINS: So just because scientists want to do it doesn't necessarily mean it's going to work, nor does it mean it's right.

GWEN IFILL: And there have been questions about broader issues, including climate change, scientific relationship, Dr. Weissman, between the scientists and this administration. Did it feel to you like something was changing or is this just a step along the way?

IRVING WEISSMAN: Yes. Yes. So what President Obama said is that we will allow scientists and the people who advise the government to present their scientific results unfettered by whatever political implications, whatever inconvenient implications they have.

You must remember that those of us who are doing biomedical research, most of us who are MDs have taken an oath to help people as our first priority. And for us to say we're going to do research which will help people with many diseases, at least try to help people with many diseases is our first goal.

When he says we want to do unbridled research, that's simply untrue. We want to apply to do research that is regulated by our government, by our state, and by our institutions.

GWEN IFILL: Dr. Irv Weissman, we'll leave it there. Thank you very much.

And, Tony Perkins, thank you for making the effort to join us tonight.

TONY PERKINS: All right. Thank you.

IRVING WEISSMAN: Thank you.