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Sec. Tommy Thompson

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson discusses the president's decision to fund some stem cell research.

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  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Welcome, Secretary Thompson.

  • TOMMY THOMPSON:

    It's very nice to be on your program. Thank you so very much.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    You were from the beginning an advocate of federal funding for stem cell research. How confident are you that these 60 lines that you say you've identified that are just existing lines, that that's going to really be sufficient for robust research?

  • TOMMY THOMPSON:

    We're very confident. You know, you have to depend upon some of the best experts and researchers and scientists in the world, and they're the ones at the National Institutes of Health, and they're the one that helped me prepare the necessary information that we gave to the President that determined that there was going to be 60 stem cell lines in existence on August 9. Now there may be a few more, but we really think that there's going to be enough. I'd also like to point out that in the map of the human genome there's less than twelve – three to twelve gene lines that were used to map the whole Human Genome Project. So 60 is all that's in existence right now. So people that are talking about the fact that they need a lot more don't really know what they're talking about, because there are only 60 in existence and under optimum conditions, it would take at least six to eight months to create another line.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    But this did come as a surprise to a lot of scientists –

  • TOMMY THOMPSON:

    Yes, it did.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    — and researchers here, who just had looked at your NIH report of two months ago –

  • TOMMY THOMPSON:

    Right.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    — saying there were just 30. I know you all did a survey worldwide and that's how you came up with 60, but how much do you really know about the quality of these lines and how – how robust they are? Are they capable of constantly regenerating themselves?

  • TOMMY THOMPSON:

    Well, we feel very good about that, because the researchers that did the reviews have indicated that they are robust and that they meet the President's qualifications and that — the only ones that we know that are in existence in the world – and so they may not all be as robust as some of the scientists would like, but we have 60 to choose from. And the researcher is going to be able to pick and choose which ones of those lines they really want to be able to do their research on.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Did you get the promises or assurances from the people who now control these lines, because they're all in private labs, as you pointed out today at your press conference, that they are going to make them freely available to other researchers?

  • TOMMY THOMPSON:

    All I can tell you is that when I asked NIH and Dr. Lana Skoba to make an inventory for me, she was somewhat surprised and I was really surprised that we had 60, and then last night she went back after the president spoke and reconfirmed that there are 60 viable lines available in the world. And she also indicated that they were all wanting to cooperate and they would like to be able to work with NIH and make their embryonic stem cell lines available for investigators and scientists here in the United States to do the basic research on.

    What really is exciting is, is that there's never been the kind of comparison done. A lot of people say, "Well, why don't you do adult stem cells, why don't you use stem cells from placenta or fat or from animals." The truth of the matter is there's never been any of the basic science done comparing all of the stem cells as to which stem cells can do the best job, which ones can replicate, which ones can differentiate into the kinds of cells that are necessary to cure some of the maladies that are afflicting so many of our loved ones.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    I want to look at some of the ethical distinctions that the president tried to lay out here. One is that there are also a lot of other conditions for what kind of lines you would use in terms of where the embryos came from.

  • TOMMY THOMPSON:

    Right.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Is that right?

  • TOMMY THOMPSON:

    They have to be ones that are in excess in invitro clinics. They have to have been produced for research. They have to make sure that there's not a profit motive and that there has to be consent.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    For instance, if somebody were to call whom you all had tried to survey last week and said, you know, we do have a line here. However, it came from embryos that had been created expressly for this purpose, for research purposes, they'd be off the list?

  • TOMMY THOMPSON:

    They would be off the list. They would not qualify for any federal research dollars. Now those lines could be qualified for private research dollars, which there's no limitation on the private investment as far as embryos that are being created. But as far as federal taxpayers dollars, only those that meet the four criteria set down by the President would qualify for federal grants.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    All right. Now, what if after six months or so — apparently sometimes these lines do get exhausted. I think scientists use the term "crash" — 20 of the 60 lines have crashed. Is that August 9th date absolutely inviolate if it was created before last night, it's eligible for research dollars but after that, no?

  • TOMMY THOMPSON:

    There's no equivocation. That is final. August 9th — those embryonic stem cell lines that were created prior to August 9 will be able to be applied for federal research dollars. Those that are created afterwards would not. But you're making a hypothetical that no scientist that I know of has ever indicated that they would have that kind of crashing as you've indicated — maybe one or two — but not 20.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    I was sort of asking theoretically because I'm trying to understand the ethical extinction. What is magic about that date ethically?

  • TOMMY THOMPSON:

    Ethically magically is that those individual embryos have been destroyed. There's no way to put them back together so that they could be a viable fetus if they were implanted in a woman and that only those would be qualifying for the federal research. The President has strongly indicated in his campaign and otherwise that he would not cross that line and use federal dollars for the destruction, the derivation of an embryo. And so he says those embryos that have been destroyed he couldn't do anything about but he's not going to fund those that would be destroyed in order to qualify for federal dollars.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    But just to push this one more step.

  • TOMMY THOMPSON:

    Sure, absolutely.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    In another year probably private researchers who are constantly doing this may have established more lines. Now they will also already be destroyed, yet they wouldn't qualify.

  • TOMMY THOMPSON:

    They wouldn't qualify. You've got to realize that these embryonic stem cells can replicate for a long period of time — some people think indefinitely. But they've only been in creation for three years. In three years only 60 have been created. And so there's plenty embryonic stem cell lines that are going to allow for the basic research. And I want to get back to that basic research.

    People think, you know, that we're going to… Just because it will be granted now, we're going to be able to come up with, you know, cures for all of these serious maladies. And first you have to do the basic research. That's what the president wants. He wants the federal dollars to go to that basic research to find out how far and what sort of stem cell conditions are going to be able to produce the best results. We haven't done that yet.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Finally, what's the role of the new commission, the Presidential Bioethics Commission that he announced last night?

  • TOMMY THOMPSON:

    The Bioethics Commission is going to be looking at a lot of things. It's still in the embryonic stages. It hasn't been set up and the people haven't been appointed but it's going to look at the ethics, the overall ethics of the implantation of embryos. It's going to be looking at the derivation of embryo stem cells. It's going to be looking at stem cell research.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    So in other words the whole gamut of what is going on out there, not just the stereotype category?

  • TOMMY THOMPSON:

    The whole panoply of stem cell research is going to be under the supervision and studying of this Bioethical Commission. They're going to look at it and find out, you know, should there be some standards, some rules and regulations, in regards, you know, to the in vitro fertilization — in vitro clinic that was in Virginia that produced embryos in regards to – for research and should there be some sort of limitations on those.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    So, in other words, you might be down the road looking at regulations and limitations even on private research.

  • TOMMY THOMPSON:

    Well, I think that this is something that this Bioethical Commission is going to have to take a look at.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    All right. Secretary Thompson, thanks so much for coming in.

  • TOMMY THOMPSON:

    My pleasure.

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