Brussels, 17 May 2004
Following signs of increasing support for embryonic stem cell research in the US, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have issued a statement acknowledging that additional lines of embryonic stem cells could speed up scientific research.
However, the letter, sent to the 206 members of Congress who have been pressing President George Bush to change his stem cell policy, defended federal policy, saying that research could still be carried out within the restrictions laid down by Mr Bush.
In August 2001, Mr Bush issued and executive order limiting federal funds for embryonic stem cell research to a small number of lines already in existence. Government money, he argued, could not be used to destroy embryos for the creation of new lines. Over the past few months, however, there has been increasing criticism of this policy, with US stem cell research experts saying it has slowed scientific progress.
In the letter, the NIH Director, Dr Elias Zerhouni, wrote: 'Today, much of the basic research that needs to be done can be and is being supported with federal funds under the president's policy. [...] And although it is fair to say that from a purely scientific perspective more cell lines may well speed some areas of human embryonic stem cell research, the president's position is still predicated on his belief that taxpayer funds should not sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos that have at least the potential for life.'
Supporters of embryonic stem cell research have seen this acknowledgment that science could be furthered through research into more stem cell lines as an indication that the policy could be revised. Indeed, this one sentence diminishes Mr Bush's scientific argument that the current line is adequate, leaving his opposition strictly on moral grounds. Larry Soler from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation described the letter as 'a turning point' as it is the first time the US administration has said its policy might be impeding science.
'It's certainly not a change in policy,' said Michael Castle, who is spearheading an effort in the House of Congress to change the president's policy. 'I look upon it as an invitation to have further discussions. [...] I am hopeful that Dr Zerhouni's letter signals a willingness by the White House to work with us to craft a policy in which the federal government will help dramatically accelerate stem cell research, not restrict it,' said Mr Castle in a statement.
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