Ignoring researchers' widespread concerns at the time it was announced, Wash. Post editorial claimed Bush stem cell policy "has proved unduly restrictive"

››› ››› RAPHAEL SCHWEBER-KOREN

A Washington Post editorial baselessly asserted that the Bush administration's policy on embryonic stem cell research was a "compromise" that "made sense" at the time but has since "proved unduly restrictive." In fact, concerns among the research community that the White House policy would be overly restrictive were widely reported in 2001, and the Post editorial board noted some of these concerns in an editorial at the time.

A July 17 Washington Post editorial baselessly asserted that the Bush administration's policy on embryonic stem cell research -- which allowed federal funding for any stem cell lines available as of August 2001 but barred funding for any lines created from that point onward -- was a "compromise" that "made sense" at the time but has since "proved unduly restrictive." In fact, concerns among the research community that the White House policy would be overly restrictive were widely reported in 2001, and the Post editorial board noted some of these concerns in an August 31, 2001, editorial.

News outlets at the time reported concerns that the Bush administration was overstating the number of viable stem cell lines available under the policy. The Associated Press reported on September 5, 2001, that, according to "stem cell research proponents," many of the stem cell lines the administration claimed were available were, in fact, "not yet fully developed and may never be useful to researchers." The AP article further reported that, based on their own survey of the organizations which possessed the stem cell lines, "researchers considered just 20 of them to be fully developed."

In an August 31, 2001, editorial, the Post noted the stem cell research community's "skeptical reaction" to Bush's announced figure of 60 stem cell lines. The editorial, noting the National Institutes of Health (NIH) survey of stem cell lines eligible for funding under Bush's policy, stated that "[t]he NIH canvass makes clear both that the president had not made the number up and that it probably overstated somewhat the number of lines that will eventually be available to researchers." The editorial then noted one particularly stark example:

Testing stem cell colonies takes time, so we won't know for a while how useful many of these lines will be. But researchers at a Swedish lab expressed surprise that NIH described them as having 19 lines, saying they actually had only three -- with another 16 in various stages of development. In all likelihood, not all of these will turn into useful lines; nor, presumably, will some others on the list. When all the testing is done, in other words, scientists will likely not have 64 viable lines for federally funded research.

An August 30, 2001, Post article had earlier detailed the "Swedish lab" issue:

So the amiable, white-haired scholar [Lars Hamberger, a Swedish fertility expert] said he and his colleagues were surprised five days later when [then-Secretary of Heath and Human Services Tommy G.] Thompson's department issued its global inventory of stem cell lines, or colonies, and reported that Goteborg University had 19.

"When we saw the announcement, we first thought maybe we made a mistake in our presentation," Hamberger said. "Then we thought maybe it was just their mistake.

"Or maybe they wanted to come up to the number that the White House had already used, so they have to stretch things, I don't know. It could have been a deliberately over-optimistic interpretation of what we said."

The figure of 19 stem cell lines at Goteborg was a key factor in bringing the HHS inventory to the figure Bush had cited on Aug. 9, when he announced his rules for federal funding of research on human embryonic stem cells. Responding to suggestions that the Bush criteria were too strict, Thompson said later that more than 60 "robust" and "viable" lines of stem cells would qualify for research funding.

As evidence that Bush's stem cell policy "has proved unduly restrictive," the July 17 Post editorial noted: "instead of the 78 lines originally foreseen by the administration, only 22 are available, and some of those are deteriorating or contaminated." But researchers' concerns that human embryonic stem cells deteriorate over time were widely reported when the administration announced its policy in August 2001, as Media Matters has noted. For example, an August 12, 2001, Post article quoted Harvard University researcher Douglas A. Melton, who said that "properties [of human embryonic stem cells] will degrade with time. Everyone is fearful that the more you grow them in the dish, the more they lose their properties." The Post article also noted that "[d]ifferent personalities and a limited life span are the two main reasons many scientists view 60 cell lines [the number of lines initially announced by Bush] as a very low ceiling that the field may bump up against long before a stem cell treatment is ready for human trials."

The Post editorial's figure of 78 stem cell lines is the number of lines currently identified by NIH as eligible for federal funding, because they were created prior to August 9, 2001. Bush's figure of 60 was the number identified by NIH when he originally announced his policy; by late August NIH listed 64. However, as noted above, researchers reportedly considered only 20 of those lines actually suitable for research. Currently, NIH has identified only 22 lines as suitable for federally funded research -- meaning that the stem cell line is both stable and can be legally obtained by U.S. researchers. A March 3, 2004, Washington Post article cited an unpublished assessment by an NIH administrator, Dr. James Battey, which reportedly stated that, between the collapse of some stem cell lines and the inaccessibility of many others -- due to foreign labs' unwillingness or legal inability to export their cell lines to the U.S. -- "the 'best-case' scenario is that only 23 cell colonies," out of the eligible 78, "will ever be available to U.S. researchers."

An August 24, 2001, Washington Post article reported the emerging concern that all of the federal-funding eligible stem cell lines had been contaminated by mouse cells, which, as Media Matters noted, could cause the death of human test subjects. The Post article, however, also reported, that the administration, made aware of this situation, stood by its policy:

Jay Lefkowitz, a White House adviser who helped craft the Bush policy, said the administration was aware that the stem cell lines Bush approved for funding had been mixed with mouse cells and would come under the FDA's xenotransplant rules.

The White House concluded that the issue would not be a serious barrier at this stage, when scientists still need to do several years of fundamental laboratory work before human tests can begin, he said. By the time researchers are ready to begin those tests, he said, officials are confident that scientists will have found a way to grow stem cells without mouse cells, or will be able to work within the FDA's guidelines.

"President Bush has unlocked the door so that critical, basic research can be conducted in an area that is currently uncharted," Lefkowitz said. "To fulfill that mission, we believe the existing stem cell lines are more than adequate."

Posted In
Environment & Science, Stem Cell Research
Network/Outlet
The Washington Post
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