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Judge’s Stem Cell Research Stoppage Debated

August 24, 2010 at 5:49 PM EDT
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A federal judge issued a ruling to halt human embryonic stem cell research and "preserve the status quo" from before President Obama expanded research guidelines. Judy Woodruff gets perspectives from Dr. Evan Snyder of the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute and David Prentice of the Family Research Council.
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JIM LEHRER: Now: the fallout from a judge’s ruling to halt federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

Judy Woodruff begins our report with some background.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Federal Judge Royce Lamberth issued his ruling late yesterday afternoon, sending a shockwave through much of the American medical research community. In a 15-page opinion, Lamberth ruled that embryonic stem cell research must stop and — quote — “preserve the status quo” that existed before an executive order signed by President Obama early last year expanded the controversial research.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JUDY WOODRUFF: That congressionally-mandated federal funding ban had been in place for more than a decade. In 2001, President Bush allowed some federal funding of stem cell research, but only on a limited number of lines of embryonic stem cells that already existed.

GEORGE W. BUSH, Former President of the United States: I have concluded that we should allow federal funds to be used for research on these existing stem cell lines, where the life-and-death decision has already been made.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Under President Bush’s policy, 21 lines were eventually available for federal funding. That number has grown to 75 since President Obama issued his order.

Lamberth’s ruling doesn’t affect research on adult stem cells, or so-called cord blood stem cells taken from newborn umbilical cords. Embryonic stem cells are culled from a human embryo when it’s just days old. In the process, the embryo is destroyed.

Many scientists focused on those kinds of cells because they were believed to be able to develop into specialized cells that could lead to new treatments for a range of diseases. The embryos are from fertility clinics. If a patient has no plan to use the embryo, it is often discarded. President Obama’s executive order permitted the use of stem cells from such embryos if a patient gave consent. No federal dollars were spent on the extraction of the cells, which involved destruction of the embryo.

But the order permitted research on these cells after they were extracted. Judge Lamberth ruled that that is a distinction without a difference, and put a temporary halt to the Obama policy. Lamberth wrote that embryonic stem cell research “necessarily depends upon the destruction of a human embryo. The congressional prohibition encompasses all research in which an embryo is destroyed, not just the piece of research in which the embryo is destroyed.”

Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, which is a major center of stem cell research, reacted to the decision today in a conference call with reporters.

DR. FRANCIS COLLINS, director, National Institutes Of Health: I was stunned, as was virtually everyone here at NIH, by the judicial decision yesterday.

This decision has the potential to do serious damage to one of the most promising areas of biomedical research, and just at the time when we were really gaining momentum. As we understand the Department of Justice’s ruling, grantees that already have awards from NIH are permitted to continue their research and need not stop in place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Late today, the Department of Justice said it would appeal Judge Lamberth’s decision in the stem cell case.

Two views now on the decision and what it will mean from people who have worked in this field. Dr. Evan Snyder is director of the Stem Cell Research Center at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in Southern California. And David Prentice is senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council. He served as an adviser to the plaintiffs in this court case.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us. Dr. Snyder, I’m going to begin with you. Just, essentially, what is your reaction to what the judge ruled and the fact that the Obama Justice Department is going to appeal?

DR. EVAN SNYDER, Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute: Well, I have to echo Dr. Collins’ response that it was both shocking and we recognize that this is a major, major blow to American biomedical research and, ultimately, health care.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A major blow. For what reason?

DR. EVAN SNYDER: Yes. Well, as was indicated by Dr. Collins, the biology that we are learning and the therapies that we are getting under our control from using these amazingly important cells could change the face of medical care. It and other stem cells like it have given rise to the entire field called regenerative medicine. In a way, this has put a halt to the progress of regenerative medicine, one of the most promising areas of research of this century.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Prentice, you hear what the — the opponents of this ruling are saying. You are advising the plaintiffs. How do you respond?

DAVID PRENTICE, senior fellow for Life Sciences, Family Research Council: Well, we are actually very encouraged by the judge recognizing the unambiguous nature of Congress’ Dickey-Wicker amendment that says no federal taxpayer funds for research in which an embryo is harmed or destroyed.

Embryonic stem cells come from destroying a human embryo. As far as the regenerative medicine part, the adult stem cells are only the stem cells that are actually already treating patients, thousands of patients every year, what we used to know as bone marrow transplants. Now we’re seeing that those adult stem cells are actually making good on what have only been promises from embryonic stem cells.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you don’t see this as a major blow to regenerative research?

DAVID PRENTICE: Actually, it might be a boon to regenerative research, because, hopefully, more federal funds will now go to adult stem cell research.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dr. Snyder, there has been this ongoing debate over adult stem cell research, embryonic stem cell research. Comment on what we have just heard from Mr. Prentice.

DR. EVAN SNYDER: Well, I guess I would have to disagree with one important point that Dr. Prentice made. There is no question that blood stem cells have been exceedingly important for a whole range of diseases, typically certain kinds of cancers and blood-derived diseases. But there are a whole host of diseases for which this therapy has not been useful. And these are major diseases like Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, a lot of genetic diseases.

And the prospect of using these other kinds of cells that in a way would recapitulate the developmental process gave us a way to begin to approach the diseases that could not be approached by adult stem cells. Now we are completely hampered. We have lost perhaps 50 percent of our armamentarium.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Prentice, how do you respond?

DAVID PRENTICE: Well, I disagree. There is already published scientific evidence in the medical and scientific journals for adult stem cells already helping patients. For example, over a year ago, the first paper published with the first Parkinson’s patient treated for Parkinson’s with his own adult stem cells. Heart damage, a number of papers out, spinal cord injury. And, in fact, embryonic stem cells…

JUDY WOODRUFF: All with adult stem cells?

DAVID PRENTICE: All with adult stem cells.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That don’t involve the destruction of embryos?

DAVID PRENTICE: That’s right, 50,000 or more patients a year treated with adult stem cells. And it’s true most of these certainly in the past have been for marrow diseases, anemia, cancers. But now we’re seeing adult stem cells actually help patients, published evidence, for things like Parkinson’s, spinal cord, M.S., juvenile diabetes, and the list goes on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dr. Snyder, if that’s the case, why are the — why are the embryonic stem cells so important?

DR. EVAN SNYDER: Well, first, I would like to respond to Dr. Prentice’s comment that there’s been demonstrated efficacy. I can tell you that I have reviewed many of those studies. I myself and our lab do research comparing various kinds of stem cells head to head. And the evidence that blood stem cells or that bone marrow-derived stem cells are useful for diabetes or for stroke or for many of the diseases that he mentioned is simply not there.

Those are not convincing. They’re not compelling. They’re overinterpreted. And they’re poorly controlled.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right…

DR. EVAN SNYDER: What the…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Go ahead.

DR. EVAN SNYDER: … younger stem cells allow us to be able to do is essentially to recapitulate the developmental process, where things really need to be kind of doing a do-over, doing — rebooting the computer.

The stem cells that recapitulate this developmental process allow us to do that. In addition, they give us insight into cancer. They give us insight into birth defects. They allow us to do drug discovery, so, from the cells themselves, we can devise and generate drugs that themselves will go into patients.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You want to comment?

DR. EVAN SNYDER: None of this is potential for — is the potential derived from adult stem cells.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to ask you to comment on that briefly, and then I have a final question.

DAVID PRENTICE: I — I’m just surprised that Dr. Snyder would make that statement. These studies have been published in some of the leading scientific journals in the world. Ask the patients themselves whether they appreciate having a real treatment now with adult stem cells.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you about one thing in the judge’s ruling, because I think it — it was part of his core line of reasoning. And that is, he disagreed with the Obama administration contention that it’s possible to do research on extracted cells that are in effect separate from the process of destroying an embryo.

DAVID PRENTICE: I think the judge made a right interpretation of the law in that case. It’s a law that Congress has passed every year since about 1996. I think the Obama administration was trying to cut the baby in half and say, this can be done with private funds, this with federal funds. Eventually, this will probably come back to Congress for resolution.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dr. Snyder, what about that point, the judge’s argument that you can’t — that, in essence, it’s a distinction without a difference?

DR. EVAN SNYDER: Well, I believe that the judge has actually misinterpreted the Dickey-Wicker amendment. And, in fact, his interpretation would not only overturn the Obama executive order. It would overturn the Bush executive order, which, limiting as it was, allowed the field to some extent to progress.

He obviously did this kind of reasoning called fruit of the poisonous tree kind of argument. But the Bush administration very thoughtfully actually figured out that they could both be compliant with the Dickey-Wicker amendment and still allow to some extent this research to proceed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And…

DR. EVAN SNYDER: The logical conclusion of this would be, in fact, not only can we use lines that were generated many, many years before this — the issue with Bush or with Obama, but we may not even be able to use all of the valuable data that has been generated by a decade’s worth of work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And — and, again, we keep referring to this amendment. This is the amendment that bans federal funding for this kind of research.

DAVID PRENTICE: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quickly, do you want to respond?

DAVID PRENTICE: This is solely about taxpayer — federal taxpayer funding.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And do you believe, as we just heard Dr. Snyder say, quickly, that this could have the effect of saying that the Bush lines, under the Bush rule even, that that kind of research is not — may not go forward?

DAVID PRENTICE: It’s possible. And I will have to leave that to the legal minds.

But, in point of fact, the Bush lines and their approval was moot once President Obama vacated the previous executive order and put his new order in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, gentlemen, we are going to leave it there.

David Prentice, Dr. Evan Snyder, thank you both.

DR. EVAN SNYDER: Thank you.