More MS news articles for Sep 2001

HHS Secretary Thompson Defends Stem Cell Policy

WASHINGTON (Reuters Health) Sept 05 - Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson Wednesday provided a spirited defense of President Bush's policy on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research at the first Congressional hearing on the subject since the President made his announcement on August 9.

Thompson came to the hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee armed with a newly-signed memorandum of understanding with the firm that owns the five cell lines developed by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, to make cells available to researchers at the National Institutes of Health.

"This agreement allows scientists to obtain cells, freely publish results, and for NIH to retain intellectual property rights," Thompson told lawmakers, many of whom said they were skeptical about HHS claims that existing cell lines are sufficient to advance what scientists say could be groundbreaking research.

Thompson said he hoped the agreement, signed Tuesday night, would serve as a model for agreements between the Wisconsin firm and other researchers, and for the other nine owners of the 64 potential lines the administration has said could be eligible for funding.

Thompson said the Food and Drug Administration had also assured him that the use of mouse cells as nutrients for the cell lines would not necessarily prevent their use in humans. "FDA regulations do not prohibit using mouse feeder layers to make [embryonic stem cell] products for human clinical trials," said a letter from acting FDA Principal Deputy Commissioner Bernard Schwetz.

Thompson did, however, back off earlier pronouncements that all 64 groups of cells were "robust, viable" embryonic stem cell lines. Instead, he said the administration had identified "64 derivations," of which "24 or 25" are fully developed into usable cell lines. Nevertheless, he insisted, those are more than enough to fund the basic research needed to determine the cells' potential. "The role of the federal government will be to make sure that the basic research takes place," he said.

Lawmakers, however, said they were less sure that the president's policy, which prohibits funding of any cell lines derived after August 9, will allow the research to progress. "There is a real question as to whether the door is open sufficiently," said Arlen Specter, R-Pa., a longtime proponent of federal funding for the research.

Rep. James Langevin, D-R.I., the first quadriplegic elected to Congress, agreed, saying "embryonic stem cell research could give me the chance to walk again." Because under the president's policy "embryonic stem cell research cannot deliver on its promise of therapeutic benefit for millions of people," he said, "I am compelled to oppose it."

Lawmakers, however, stopped short of threatening to try to pass legislation immediately to try to overturn the policy. Several more hearings are scheduled in the coming weeks.

Copyright © 2001 Reuters Ltd