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Stem Cell Veto Makes Private Funding More Essential

July 19, 2006 at 2:35 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And now, how this veto could impact the state of stem-cell research itself. NewsHour health correspondent Susan Dentzer is here for that.

Susan, welcome.

SUSAN DENTZER, NewsHour Health Correspondent: Thank you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: First, just in general terms, what does this veto, the failure of this bill to become law as it likely is not going to happen now, how does that affect embryonic stem-cell research that’s ongoing right now as we speak?

SUSAN DENTZER: Well, that’s, of course, the question many across the country are asking. But as you suggest, there is a lot of research now under way under the current federal policy paid for with federal funds.

When President Bush set forth his policy in 2001, he actually opened the window for that research to begin to take place that closed under the Clinton administration while the ethical issues were sorted out.

But starting in August 2001, federal money could flow to researchers who were willing to use stem cell colonies that had been created before the president gave his speech in August 2001. That’s complicated, but that’s how it played out.

Over that period of time, we’ve come to find that there are 22 of those viable colonies that are authorized lines, as they’re called, stem-cell lines. Those can be used for federally funded research.

There’s a national stem-cell bank that was created at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, which was the place that the colonies, human stem-cell colonies were first created. You can go there and get a vial of stem cells. You can buy it. You can go into your lab and research with federal funds.

And to date, about $90 million of federal funding through the National Institutes of Health has been made available to researchers doing that.

JIM LEHRER: And nothing that happened today is going to change that?

SUSAN DENTZER: Nothing at all.

Funding might not be enough

JIM LEHRER: Give us a feel for the kind of research that is being done for this $90 million. Can you give us some examples?

SUSAN DENTZER: Yes, indeed. There's a lot going forward, both in the federally funded environment and outside that, under private funds and state funds. To talk about the federally funded environment, again, lots of work is going on to, first of all, just understand the basics of embryonic stem cells.

Think about it. In a several-day-old embryo, you have these basic cells that ultimately differentiate. They develop into all the different cells in the bodies. They start out looking the same, but they become pancreas cells, and they become brain cells, and they become eye cells.

And just understanding that process is of enormous potential benefit. For example, if we know how that process happens normally, then we'll understand what happens when it goes awry, why birth defects happen in some people, why cancers occur. There's an increasing school of thought that cancers are stem-cell diseases.

JIM LEHRER: And so that kind of work continues?

SUSAN DENTZER: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the failure of the president to allow further federal funding, if this veto goes through -- and it looks like it will -- prevents what additional things from happening?

SUSAN DENTZER: Essentially what people worry about is that there's not going to be enough, if you'll forgive the phrase, raw material of human embryonic stem cells that can be studied going forward. And so the idea was to create a much more plentiful supply.

In theory, you could have created, if the legislation -- if that had become federal law -- hundreds, if not thousands, of new human stem-cell colonies that people could use for federally funded research. You can still do it with private money.

Researching without federal money

JIM LEHRER: That's what I was going to ask, yes.

SUSAN DENTZER: But you can't do it with federal money. And there's a lot going on.

For example, just today, a private California company, Geron Corporation, published some results. It's working with the University of California at Irvine scientists, again in a private-funded mechanism, to look at how you can take human embryonic stem cells, put them at the moment into rats that have been paralyzed, and regenerate the spinal cords of those rats.

They've shown that you can do that safely. You don't kill the rats in the process. That's a small step, but an important step along the road to trying that eventually in humans, which they will plan to do within the next couple of years.

JIM LEHRER: But they would not be able to do that with federal funds?

SUSAN DENTZER: They couldn't do it now with federal funds with newly created cells. They could use the authorized lines to do that. They're not doing that, because they've developed a way to make even purer lines, and so they don't want to work with the federally authorized lines.

Ethical cloud hangs over research

JIM LEHRER: Now, the importance that many scientists put on this bill, on the expansion of federal funding, what was it -- was it just about money, or was there more involved than that?

SUSAN DENTZER: Not technically about money, because of course this bill would have carried no additional appropriations of federal dollars. And in fact, the National Institutes of Health budget is, if anything, shrinking at the moment, so the question about how much funding will be available over time is on the table.

But essentially it would have just made it much, much easier for people to get new human embryonic stem cells to work with. And more important, I think some people believe is it would have removed a little bit of the ethical cloud that hangs over this research.

Some institutions appear to have hung back even to apply for federal funds just out of a concern that they might alienate alumni, for example. There's a concern that, in the private investment world, investors are skittish about investing in this, so that biotech companies that want to do this would have trouble raising money.

So that's been a hope that you could over time dissipate this ethical cloud and basically create much more interest in a very important area of research.

JIM LEHRER: Now, some states have weighed in on this issue, have they not? Give us an overview of that.

SUSAN DENTZER: Indeed. In fact, the states are almost a patchwork quilt, of some states really pushing ahead and others holding back.

JIM LEHRER: Pushing ahead, meaning what?

SUSAN DENTZER: Directly, California, for example, in 2004 passed a voter initiative, a ballot initiative to create the California Regenerative Medicine Institute, which is now up and running, its fate still somewhat tied up in the courts. But over time the plan is to issue $3 billion in state bonds to finance the research in California.

It just awarded its first round of grants, a small $12 million, to train people to do the research going forward, but that's an example of clear state effort and state money being expended to do this.

Story is a long way from being over

JIM LEHRER: And nothing, nothing that happened today can...

SUSAN DENTZER: Change that...

JIM LEHRER: ... walk on that or change that in any way whatsoever?

SUSAN DENTZER: You have, on the other hand, other states -- Missouri being an example -- where there have been many attempts over the last several years to pass legislation that would restrict embryonic stem-cell research, even make it less permissive than the federal environment.

One bill that was debated in Missouri actually would have made it a crime for a Missouri citizen to go to another state, get a stem-cell therapy, and come back. You'd be arrested for doing that. And now there's a ballot initiative under way, or could be, to cement into the state constitution a guarantee that the state law will never be more restrictive than the federal law to protect against that.

JIM LEHRER: So this story is a long way from being over?

SUSAN DENTZER: A long way.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you, Susan.

SUSAN DENTZER: Thanks, Jim.