Stem Cell Divide
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MARGARET WARNER: [The] two Senators are Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who testified before the Senate Health and Education Committee at today’s hearing; and Republican Bill Frist of Tennessee, a member of the committee. Welcome, Senators.
Senator Specter, starting with you, you raised a lot of questions at today’s hearing about whether the stem cell lines that qualify under President Bush’s guidelines are in fact sufficient to support the research that’s being contemplated. What makes you skeptical?
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, the President had talked about 60 lines, since expanded to 64. But as the weeks have evolved, quite a number of those lines have proved to be really nonexistent. And today Secretary Thompson did a good bit of backing and filling, conceding, that there aren’t 64 stem cell lines, which are robust and viable and also made what is a really major concession when he said that as to the therapy, that would have to be done by private research.
Now, that’s a very, very important line, because the stem cells are affected by mouse feeder lines so that they’ve been contaminated. And the Congress has provided enormous funding for NIH, practically doubled $12 billion additional in the last few years, and those funds would really be able to move ahead on stem cell therapy as well as research. So I think the President’s program as explained by Secretary Thompson falls very short.
MARGARET WARNER: When you said, though, some of those lines have been disappearing, what do you mean?
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: I mean that…
MARGARET WARNER: Give me an example.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, specifically and factually, when there was a representation that there were 19 lines out of the University of Goteberg in Sweden, Dr. Lars Hamberger corrected that to say that there were only three ready for research, that others were in a very early stage and might not pan out. The seven in India were not ready for research, not viable and robust. Nine in San Diego; none was ready for research.
MARGARET WARNER: Senator Frist, is that what you concluded from today’s hearing, that there really aren’t as many stem cell lines ready for research as the President originally said?
SEN. BILL FRIST: Well, I think if you step back, it is really very admirable, I believe, that the president has said we’re going to fund for the first time stem cell… embryonic stem cell research in order to capture the promise that we all hope that stem cells engage in. The real debate today was how many lines are necessary– is it 64, is it 40, is it 50? And again, nobody, nobody in the entire hearing today said what the ideal number of cell lines would be. We know that there are about two dozen cell lines, which are fully mature now, ready for research.
The remainder of the 64, within that 64 are at different stages of development. It takes about two months to eight months to fully develop a cell line. Some are just two months old; some are three months old; some are just three or four or five, six weeks old. So it’s going to take a full eight months before we’ll know whether or not these 64 cell lines are available.
MARGARET WARNER: So your view is, go ahead with the president’s policy and just see how many additional ones develop?
SEN. BILL FRIST: Yes. What we need to do is to figure out whether stem cells have promise; we need to realize that promise if it’s there. This is untried, it’s untested, it’s unproven. In fact, I don’t think we should go too far to over promise or over sell what stem cells can do. What we need to do is right now– which is what the president has done– say, let’s open to door to federal funding for the basic research so that we can obtain these answers and hopefully realize that promise some day. And that’s what the president has done. He said let’s do it, let’s do it now. Let’s take the lines that are available today– which may be 25, it may be 30, it may be 40, it may be 50– but let’s take them today and let’s go along and take that first step to see whether or not this research is going to pan out.
MARGARET WARNER: That’s essentially, Senator Specter, what Secretary Thompson said today, was let’s go ahead with these 24 or 25 and see how the rest pan out. What’s wrong with that approach?
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, I think it’s a very good approach, and I applaud the President for the initial step, which has been taken. But when you find that the representation is made of 60 or 64, and when you check the facts and they aren’t there, it raises a question. And then the research is not sufficient in and of itself until you have it applied as to therapy.
MARGARET WARNER: Explain what you mean by that.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, what I mean specifically is that when you want to put it for use in a human being, when you take the stem cell and want to put it in a human brain to deal with Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, where you have mouse feeder lines, there have been nutrients from mice, and there’s also been cow or bovine serum, and you can’t mix the species. Now, the Food and Drug Administration has prohibitions against that. There are some exceptions in very limited circumstances, but today, Secretary Thompson said that the therapy would be done by private companies. And that means that the $20 billion-plus, which the Congress puts up every year for NIH to deal with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and cancer and heart disease, won’t be available.
But let’s bear in mind, Margaret, that there are 100,000 of these embryos, which are going to be discarded, thrown away. And Secretary Thompson again today said that the administration’s policy is not going to be to allow any stem cells to be extracted from embryos or to use stem cells extracted from embryos after August 9. And that’s tying science’s hands so that it’s just to be restrictive. But I agree with my colleague, Bill Frist, that the step is an important one. But there’s a lot more, which is going to have to follow.
SEN. BILL FRIST: Let me say two things. First of all, a lot of the debate today and the questionings was as if the administration tried to purposely– whether Secretary Thompson or the president of the United States– mislead the American people. I just don’t buy it, and I really think it’s disingenuous for us to even imply that. Basically, there are stem cells out there that have not yet been federally funded in terms of a research purpose. Now with the President’s policy we can do that. And then let’s see if these stem cells, do they work? Can you really send them in 100,000 different directions?
I think that you probably can, but the basic, basic science has not been done. And the mouse cells– again, we can spend a lot of time on it– but this whole field of xeno- transplantation, or xeno-science, where you take a cell from one species to another, is nothing new about it. In the field of transplantation, we’ve been dealing with it for over 30 years. There are protocols that are set up today. There are 15 different investigations going on right now as we speak for this whole idea of cross-species transplantation. It’s not new. It’s something we need to focus upon. The FDA has said they’re going to focus upon it. And again, I don’t think we ought to throw up these red herrings that in some way may potentially even slow down the research.
MARGARET WARNER: So in other words, you aren’t troubled, or you don’t think the fact that virtually all of the stem cell lines under the president’s policy or that qualify under his policy had been mixed with these mouse cells, that that makes somehow the research less valuable.
SEN. BILL FRIST: Absolutely not; absolutely not. The basic research that is being proposed today is not anywhere near testing in human beings– well, I hope not because we haven’t done the basic testing in the test tube or even in the animal model before taking it to human beings. And we’re going to have to be very careful if we’re going to take these stem cells, from an ethical, moral standpoint, and start experimenting in human beings. This is very, very early research at the basic level. And the field of transplantation, a typical drug that I might use approved by the FDA is actually made in a horse, horse antibodies or rabbit antibodies that we use in humans today. It’s done on a routine basis. Yes, it has to be done in a carefully controlled way, and that’s the way it can be done, I think, under FDA oversight.
MARGARET WARNER: Senator Specter, the other issue was raised was whether researchers will have access to the relatively small numbers of cells that are controlled by private labs. Just briefly, were you satisfied by Secretary Thompson on that point, that there will be enough available?
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, I think they have taken some significant first steps, but I think that there needs to be further inquiry. I would disagree with my colleague, Senator Frist, on the issue of red herrings. I don’t see any red herrings at all. What I see are a lot of questions. And I think that when there is a shift on what the Health and Human Service Department is saying, that those are questions which have to be answered by the Congress. And when there is a statement made, that the therapy, that is the application of the research, is going to be done by private companies so that you’re not going to have the $20 billion- plus that the Congress has put up for the National Institutes of Health, not going to have that available, I think those are questions which have to be answered.
MARGARET WARNER: And briefly, do you see any appetite in Congress for legislation that would override the President’s limitations? Both of you.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, I do not see it at the moment. There is currently a prohibition of federal law for using any NIH funds on embryos, and I think that prohibition ought to be eliminated. That does not decide what the policy will be. But as we move down the line, and find perhaps… And I don’t know what we’re going to find. These are questions, which have to be answered, not red herrings, but legitimate questions.
SEN. BILL FRIST: I think we will, just closing there, I think that we will see legislation in certain areas like, which is not stem cell research, but human cloning, informed consent, human subjects protections, all of which provide a larger, comprehensive ethical and moral framework and scientific framework. I think you will see some legislation.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: But Bill, if the question is whether there will be legislation to expand what the president has done, if we find these stem cell lines are not sufficient or if we find that the therapy is not adequate without getting clean stem cell lines, then I think there will be pressure in America, because virtually every family is touched by Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s or cancers or heart disease, and we’ll see. Before the president made this breakthrough, there was a lot of pressure building up in Congress to legislate to some extent. Now we have to see if these questions are answered so that the existing policy of the president is sufficient, and we’ll have hearings to answer those questions.
MARGARET WARNER: We have to end this. But Senator Frist, you want a brief final word on that?
SEN. BILL FRIST: No, I again applaud the president for taking this very important first step. I agree with my colleague, we’re going to need to have very careful oversight. Science moves fast. It moves a lot faster than we do in the legislative arena. We need to make sure this research is conducted in an ethical, moral, and scientifically sound way.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, thank you Senator Specter and Senator Frist.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Nice to be with you, Margaret.
MARGARET WARNER: Nice to be with you.