TOPICS > Science

U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon

August 9, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


SUSAN DENTZER: I’d like to start by asking you, we’re coming up on the third anniversary of the announcement of the President’s guidelines under which human embryonic research, stem cell research could proceed forward. What’s your perspective now, three years later, on the wisdom of that policy?

REP. WELDON: I think it was a great policy. There’s been a tremendous amount of misinformation and disinformation that’s still out there, and a lot of people are confused, but I think it was an excellent policy, and I think it is the policy that should be continued into the future.

SUSAN DENTZER: What’s the misinformation or disinformation?

REP. WELDON Oh, the list is long. Let’s start with many people think there are federal restrictions on embryo stem cell research. There are no federal restrictions. Any biotechnology company, any university can do it. There are no laws against it. The debate is over who is going to pay for it. Is it going to be federal taxpayer dollars? Are there are a lot of taxpayers who are not comfortable with having their tax dollars used to destroy human embryos.

And so – now the interesting thing about the Bush policy and why I think it was the right policy, under Clinton they had destroyed a number of embryos to get all these embryo stem cells, and so Bush said well, we will fund research with those cell lines, and we actually funded $10 million of research last year on embryo stem cells. And so the research is actually being funded.

And so I don’t know what all these so-called advocates really want. Are they really saying they want to use taxpayer dollars to destroy more embryos, because it’s ongoing. We’re already funding it today.

SUSAN DENTZER: Another aspect of the policy is not just the Bush policy, but it’s also the Dickey amendment here in the Congress, which does, in fact, prohibit the research with federal dollars.

REP. WELDON Well, here again, there are no federal laws. You can open a lab, and you can create human embryos, and do whatever you want with them, and you will not run afoul of the law. This is purely an issue of using taxpayer dollars, and it’s very similar to the issue surrounding using taxpayer dollars to fund abortions. Abortions are legal in America, but you can’t use taxpayer dollars to do it. And one of the biggest reasons why we have that policy in place is because more than 50 percent of the American people are pro-life. They do not support even legalized abortion. And so we think it’s the right thing to do.

There’s another aspect to this whole debate, though, which I think is a very important one, and that is show me the evidence to support all these claims that this is the most promising line of research. I had two women in here about three weeks ago who could not walk, and are now able to stand up and walk using a walker, with adult stem cells. And adult stem cells have been used successfully to treat Parkinson’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, and a whole host of other conditions. They don’t even have a good animal model of treating an animal with a condition with embryo stem cells, and so why are all these people running around claiming the embryo stem cells have more promise.

I just – I don’t see the evidence of it in the medical literature or in the biology literature.

SUSAN DENTZER: Well, is it fair to say, as the scientists on both sides of this issue say, we just don’t know? We don’t know about that aspect of the science, and we truly also don’t know about where adult stem cell science is going to lead us?

REP. WELDON Well, actually, we know where adult stem cell science is leading us. We’ve been doing adult stem cell transplants for 20 years, and they are proving to be very successful. You can treat a whole bunch of immune dysfunctions, and leukemias with adult stem cells. The question is will the embryonic stem cells be more promising, and the reality is NIH is funding. They did fund $10 million more of research.

Harvard just announced, I believe, recently that they are going to set up an embryo stem cell research line, and they’re going to fund more embryo stem cell research, which means they’re going to destroy some embryos, which is, I guess, what they want to do. And so we will find out over time.

So the real debate, and what’s really going on here in Washington, D.C., is are we going to use the federal dollars to do it. I assume if John Kerry wins, one of the things he will advocate for is just unfettered destruction of human life, and no restrictions on what you do with these human embryos.

SUSAN DENTZER: There are some of your colleagues on the Republican side, also on the Democratic side, who have proposed at least loosening up these restrictions so that embryos that are in storage banks at IVF clinics and otherwise about to be destroyed could also be utilized to harvest stem cells and used with federal dollars to conduct research, not to destroy the embryos with federal dollars and extract the stem cells, but to actually conduct the research with those.

REP. WELDON Yeah, that’s another one of those myths out there, the 400,000 embryos that are going to be destroyed. The reality there, again, these are families that have gone through IVF, the in vitro fertilization, and they still have some embryos left in deep freeze, and the truth is the vast majority, like better than 90 percent of those families are not rushing to donate their embryos for destructive research. They are morally conflicted about what to do with those embryos, and so they pay the fees each month to keep these things in the deep freezer. And it’s actually a very small percentage that are really eligible or available for research studies where the parents are willing to donate them.

About 65 percent of them, when you thaw them out, they die, they don’t survive, and it would really be a very, very small number. And here again, I’ll get back to my original point, there’s no restrictions on that. If you’re a parent and you’ve got these embryos in the freezer and you want to donate them for research, you can do that today.

The real debate is once you thaw that out, if it survives, if it starts to grow into what we call the blastocyst phase where you can actually extract the embryonic stem cells from it, and that’s another if because sometimes they do not grow into the blastocyst phase, but if they ever get to that place, as you begin extracting those embryonic stem cells, you kill that embryo.

There are no restrictions on that. You can actually do that. The restriction is we are not using federal taxpayer dollars to fund that.

SUSAN DENTZER: And many scientists, since NIH is essentially the 800 pound gorilla in biomedical research, many scientists say that is a real limitation on their ability to carry out this research, that accessing the existing lines costs them at least $5,000 per vial to obtain the stem cells; that for all but the most well funded labs who have a source of private funding this is becoming prohibitively expensive and they want to be able to create their own cell lines.

REP. WELDON Well, you know, I just don’t buy that. I’ve talked to Elias Zerhouni, the head of the NIH, and he tells me that they have to – before they can give a grant, they have to get a good research application. So it has to be a legitimate lab that wants to do legitimate work, and they have these cell lines available, and I have not really seen the evidence to support that argument.

SUSAN DENTZER: So you think the science is moving forward, and the research is moving forward.

REP. WELDON Oh, absolutely. Now, there are a lot of cell biologists who would just like to dial a number and get embryonic stem cells at a really cheap price. They may be able to do that.

Harvard is saying that they’re going to use some of their multi-billion dollar endowment to move ahead on this, and so that may come true in the future. I mean, the real debate here is you’re destroying human life, it’s questionable whether this will ever have any applications.

One of the things that fascinates me is the death of Ronald Reagan has stimulated a lot of interest in all of this. Alzheimer’s disease is one of the least likely diseases to ever benefit from either adult or embryonic stem cells. And so it’s stimulating all this discussion.

There is really no data out there to really support the claim that the embryonic stem cells have more application.

One of the problems with the embryonic stem cells is tissue rejection. If you use stem cells from an embryo, it’s not you. This is why a lot of people like myself feel the adult stem cells have much more potential because when we get adult stem cells from the patient, we’re using their own cells, and so there’s no tissue rejection incompatibility issues there.

SUSAN DENTZER: Which gets us to another issue, which is the therapeutic cloning debate and the bill that you sponsored that, in effect, would have banned that as well as reproductive cloning. Many people point to what happened earlier this year when South Korean scientists were able to not only create a new line of human embryonic stem cells, but were able to create that line in a way that was genetically identical to the donor because of the use of semantic cell nuclear transfer and say, “That’s the kind of work that should have happened in the United States, and would have happened in the United States if we did not have these restrictions in the form of the President’s policy as well as the Dickey amendment.

REP. WELDON: Right. Well, let’s see what comes out of South Korea. You know, the French just recently outlawed embryonic cloning like my bill calls for. It’s been illegal in Germany for years and many other countries around the world. But the British have had no restrictions. The British have allowed embryonic cloning for years.

Where are the research papers? Where are the great breakthroughs? I think this type of research is unethical and unnecessary. I think most of the good clinical applications are emerging from the use of adult stem cells, and it’s highly questionable whether this notion of therapeutic cloning, which remains science fiction at this point – I mean, somebody may ultimately someday use it or be able to develop it, but it’s a fictional concept at this point.

But I’ll just say again, the British – it’s been legal there for years. I mean, there was one famous cell biologist who was involved in a lot of this research, made a big splash in the media by going over to England saying we were stifling intellectual freedom. You know, if you’re going to have ethics and morality, at some point you have to say no.

One of the problems I have with this notion of this embryonic stem cell stuff is when you take those embryonic stem cells out of that embryo, it’s very costly and expensive to grow it into the tissue that you need. Let’s say you need muscle tissue. You have to take those embryonic stem cells and grow them into that form of tissue. It will be much cheaper and much easier to take those embryos and just throw them in an artificial bath, an artificial womb environment for 14 or 16 days, get it through the fetal stage, and then just get the tissues that you want.

That is what the Pandora’s Box is that you’re opening, and I feel that we shouldn’t be going down this path, not only because it’s morally objectionable to me and I believe it’s unethical, but as well I feel very strongly it’s unnecessary.

There’s a man walking around America today with Parkinson’s Disease that has been almost cured by using adult stem cells. As I mentioned, I’ve had people who have been able to get up out of wheel chairs with adult stem cells. We’ve got cures of Multiple Sclerosis, Crones Disease, and about 40 other conditions using adult stem cells, and all we hear out of the other side, from my perspective, is just a lot of hot air…

SUSAN DENTZER: You mentioned Ronald Reagan. His widow, Nancy Reagan, has made clear what her position is on embryonic stem cell research. His son, Ron Reagan, Jr., will be speaking at the Democratic Convention next week. Are they wrong in their perspective that this area of science holds so much promise?

REP. WELDON: Well, number one, I think they’re absolutely wrong. Number two, I think they’re expressing their opinions, and they are not expressing the opinions of what I think Ronald Reagan would support. If you actually go back and look at Ronald Reagan’s writings, it’s very, very clear that he would never have stood for this kind of research. He was a strong believer in the sanctity of human life, and he had specifically stated in his book on abortion and the conscience of a nation that once you start saying that any type of human life is disposable or expendable, that all forms of human life, including you and me, could be jeopardized eventually in time, and that’s the slippery slope you’re walking down.

You know, we’re saying now you can create human life for the purpose of exploiting it and destroying it. That’s what people who want to do this cloning are saying, and where does that end? What is the ultimate end point in all that? And Ronald Reagan, our former president, if you read his writings, he was very, very clear that he thought that was a very destructive path for us to go down.

SUSAN DENTZER: There is some discussion to the effect that the White House is at least considering an evolution in its position on this, partly because the polls seem to suggest that the majority of Americans are in favor of human embryonic stem cell research, precisely because they do believe there will be great applications – maybe not greater than adult stem cells, but at least as great applications in treatment of various diseases. Are you afraid the White House is going to change its position, particularly if the President is re-elected?

REP. WELDON Well, I don’t know what George Bush will do. I know what John Kerry will do. He will adopt the same policy that Clinton did, where he was essentially allowing the destruction of human embryos for the purpose of this kind of research, and I think that would be a bad thing. As to what the Bush team will ultimately do after the election, I would assume they would continue to hear the existing policy.
Now, how they can modify that policy, I don’t know. But I think it is the right policy for us to pursue with taxpayer dollars. You know, we have a multi-billion-dollar biotechnology industry in this country today. They can fund this research. There are no federal laws blocking it. They won’t. Why?

Well, they won’t because they know the same thing that I know, which is it’s really questionable whether it really has the promise people claim. And you can’t justify using corporate dollars for very, very dubious types of research. It has to have a real clinical application.

SUSAN DENTZER: You mentioned the hypothetical of a Kerry Administration changing the policy. Unless the Dickey amendment is repealed or done away with or not enacted again, the policy really can’t change, can it?

REP. WELDON No, they can go back to doing what Clinton did. Clinton played a little cute game with the Dickie Policy where the embryos were destroyed in an outside lab and then they were shipped over to the NIH, and Clinton said we were not violating the law in that case. And many of us in Congress said this is the best example of maybe not violating the letter of the law, but violating the spirit of law that I’ve ever seen. So I would assume they would go back to something like that. And that was really what Bush stopped. He said no, we’re not going to take these embryonic stem cells that are being manufactured in these outside labs. We’re going to adhere to the intent of the law. And I would expect you would see something like that under a Kerry administration.

SUSAN DENTZER: I want to come back to the Castle-DeGette Bill. You’ve in effect said this, but if you could just say it a little bit more cleanly. You’re opposed to that proposed legislation, correct?

REP. WELDON Yes, I am. I haven’t studied that bill, but just knowing the two authors of that bill, I believe they would probably open the Pandora’s Box on all these things. You know, one of the reasons I was very concerned about the directions of all of this is that I think ultimately you will get into genetic manipulation of human beings. That’s really the path that you’ll go down.

We’ve completed the genome project. We now know the genetic sequence of the entire human genetic material, and we’re now determining what all these genes mean. Ultimately, we will find the genes for height, athletic ability, intelligence, and ultimately where this will get us to is people will want to go beyond sex selection. We already have that in the United States. Sex selection abortions. It’s not done openly and publicly, but it’s something that can be done. And ultimately we will get into the phase of where we’re going beyond in vitro fertilization, and we’re actually trying to create designer babies.

SUSAN DENTZER: And the fact that at least 30 Republicans now have endorsed at least the loosening of the restrictions along the lines of what Castle and DeGette propose, is the party shifting gears?

REP. WELDON Well, you know, it’s interesting. I spoke to a couple of those people who signed that letter, and one of them in particular didn’t really realize what he had signed. When I simply pointed out to him that this is perfectly legal and industry will not fund it, he said, “Oh, I didn’t know that.”

You mentioned a poll earlier of a majority of Americans. I’d love to see that poll. I’m not sure if a majority of Americans know the difference between adult and embryonic stem cells. The way the press frequently reports this issue is that people like me are against stem cell research, and they will use those kinds of words and those kinds of language, and I’m all in favor of stem cell research. I think we should actually be doing more of it, but using adult stem cells. And I’ve never been opposed to – I’ve never supported making embryonic stem cell research illegal. I just never wanted us to be funding that with federal taxpayer dollars.

SUSAN DENTZER: So when you spoke with this colleague, did he change his mind?

REP. WELDON Pretty much, yes. He was kind of upset. He felt he had been mislead. This is a very complicated issue. As soon as you start talking about stem cells, most people do not know what you’re talking about. When you start talking about adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells, a lot of people get lost. Unless you have a biomedical background, it’s very, very hard to follow.

SUSAN DENTZER: And then finally, I do want to come back to the South Korean situation again. When you heard that that had been accomplished earlier this year, the South Korean scientists had, in fact, performed somatic cell nuclear transfer, had in effect cloned and then created stem cell lines based on those cloned cells, what did you think? What was your reaction?

REP. WELDON Well, it’s not surprising. You know, you can do those sort of things in mice, a mammal. Transitioning that to humans is not that technically difficult.

I’m a clinician. I used to take care of people with Diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. Taking that technology and then applying it clinically is the real question, and, you know, you look at that, and for someone like me, I say so what, you know. Show me how you can take that and make one person’s life better. And I’ve been arguing it’s very questionable whether they would ever be able to do that.

If I have a disease, it just makes much more sense to take stem cells from my body that would combat that disease than to take stem cells from some cloned embryo made in a lab in South Korea. You’re going to have some genetic incompatibilities there, and tissue rejection problems.

SUSAN DENTZER: Most of the people in the embryonic stem cell research field believe that as much as they look forward to the possibility that stem cells could be used as an actual therapy, they think an even more exciting area potentially is using human embryonic stem cells as a way to conduct additional drug research. That is to say you could, since, as you say, we don’t often have good animal models for human diseases. In effect, what you could do is test a lot of molecules for efficacy against any number of diseases, against those very same human cells that were created out of human embryonic stem cells, and that this, if anything, may even be the bigger promise of stem cell research.

REP. WELDON Well, actually, that gets you into a very thorny issue, and it’s an issue that I’ve been talking about, particularly as it relates to embryonic cloning, which is developing human models of disease.

We currently do most of our biomedical research in this country using rats and mice or tissues, and one of the promises people are holding out is to take, say, somebody who has Cystic Fibrosis and clone them, and so the labs would no longer have to use rat or mice models of Cystic Fibrosis to do their research. They would actually buy clones of your child with Cystic Fibrosis, embryonic, and they would do the research on that. And to me, that is an abomination that we would be creating wholesale large numbers of human embryos solely for the purpose of being sold and exploited in the lab.

Now, what you were talking about, just using the embryonic stem cells, well there again, if that has all that promise, why couldn’t adult stem cells be used? Why couldn’t we harvest adult stem cells from your body to do that same kind of biomedical research?

One aspect of this debate that I think is not getting enough attention, one of the problems that we have with the adult stem cell therapeutics that are out there is they are not patentable. So if I – I met with a researcher at the University of Chicago who has treated dozens of people with a whole variety of conditions using adult stem cells. But his interventions, they’re not patentable.

And part of the reason why a lot of these researchers are very eager to do this embryonic stem cell research is the model – the economic model is if I were to, say, develop the embryonic stem cell line model that could cure Parkinson’s Disease, well, that is actually patentable under our current law, and therefore I could become extremely wealthy because everybody with Parkinson’s Disease from all around the world would want my embryonic stem cells. Whereas if I had developed the method using the patient’s stem cells, their adult stem cells in their body, not patentable.

And so that is at play in all of this, and what I feel we may need to do is modify our patent laws, and a lot of this debate may actually go away.

SUSAN DENTZER: As you said, you’re a medical doctor. You’ve treated many very ill patients over the years. The scientists, I can imagine, who I’ve spoken to would sit here in front of you and say how can you say with any confidence that we’re so sure that adult stem cell research will pan out better than human embryonic stem cell research.

REP. WELDON Well, it is. It’s not will, or if. It is. If you want to come back in a few weeks, I’ll bring those two girls in here and they can get up with a walker with braces on their legs. They had an adult stem cell transplant. I mean, show me that using embryonic stem cells. And the onus is on them to show that the embryonic stem cells have more promise. It’s not on me to show that adult stem cells have more promise.

We’ve been using adult stem cells for 20 years. There are lots of conditions that have been treated with adult stem cells. The onus is on the other side to show that the embryonic stem cells have more promise. And there are no legal restrictions on them doing that. The issue is just federal funding.

And the other irony is we are funding it. We funded $10 million worth of embryonic stem cell research. And so when I hear all these complaints, I say what do you want. Do you just want us to kill more embryos? Is that what you’re really after.

SUSAN DENTZER: Finally, I asked you about the position of Nancy Reagan and Ron Reagan, and I think the way you responded, was I think they’re wrong.

REP. WELDON: Well, I’m not sure Nancy Reagan and Ron Reagan are right when they say that the embryonic stem cell research needs to move forward. I believe that is the wrong position. I think the adult stem cell research should continue to get the federal funding at the level it is right now. The embryonic stem cell research should continue to get the funding as it is right now. The Bush policy needs to be kept in place, and private dollars should be used to fund this research, and then demonstrate that it really has the promise that they claim it has, and I don’t think we should change our policy right now.