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Serving the American People

The Director of NIH adds his voice to the chorus calling for a new stem cell policy

Dr. Zerhouni’s address to Congress serves as a wake up call to the White House as it threatens to once again veto stem cell research legislation.

Dr. Elias Zerhouni, the Director of the National Institutes of Health, hopefully gave the White House a wake up call this week when he told Congress that the current federal stem cell policy is slowing down science and needs to be updated.

Dr. Story Landis, the NIH Interim Director of the Stem Cell Task Force, has been similarly critical of the current stem cell policy. President Bush needs to finally listen to the American people, a bipartisan majority in Congress, and his own agency scientists and update our stem cell policy.

Dr. Zerhouni’s comments before a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee highlighted the restrictive nature of the current policy. He pointed out that Bush’s policy is slowing science because “[federally supported stem] cell lines won’t be sufficient to do all the research we need to do.” The president claimed in 2001 that there were over 70 stem cell lines eligible for funding, but scientists have since determined that there are actually only 21 stem cell lines usable for research today.

Since President Bush restricted federal funding to research on stem cell lines derived before August of 2001, scientists have created newer, more effective stem cell lines. Two months ago, Dr. Landis told a Senate committee that access to these lines “would be incredibly important.” She added that “science works best when scientists can pursue all avenues of research. If the cure for Parkinson’s disease or juvenile diabetes lay behind one of four doors, wouldn’t you want the option to open all four doors at once instead of one door?”

The current stem cell policy not only slows the race towards life-saving cures, but also hurts American competitiveness. Dr. Zerhouni emphasized that other countries with less restrictive policies are moving ahead, while American scientists are stuck using inferior stem cell lines.

Dr. Zerhouni also decried attempts by opponents of embryonic stem cell research to overstate the potential of other types of stem cell research. Research should be conducted on all kinds of stem cells, but there are no viable alternatives to embryonic stem cells.

The Center for American Progress has outlined a plan for updating our stem cell policy to effectively and ethically pursue life-saving cures. A good first start would be the passage of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act. This bill received widespread, bipartisan support when it was passed in the House and is expected to receive the same in the Senate, where it will likely be introduced next month. Unfortunately, President Bush has said that he will veto the bill, as he did with similar legislation last year, ignoring the will of Congress and the American people.

Dr. Zerhouni commented before the Senate, “It is clear today that American science would be better served, the nation would be better served, if we let our scientists have access to more cell lines.” Too bad our president does not appear willing to do so.

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