Tuesday, March 20, 2007

NIH chief: Stem cell ban hobbles science

NIH chief: Stem cell ban hobbles science

WASHINGTON (AP) — Lifting the ban on taxpayer funding of research on new stem cells from fertilized embryos would better serve both science and the nation, the chief of the National Institutes of Health told lawmakers Monday.

Allowing the ban to remain in place, Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni told a Senate panel, leaves his agency fighting "with one hand tied behind our back."

"It is clear today that American science will be better served — the nation will be better served — if we allow our scientists to have access to more cell lines," Zerhouni told two members of the Senate health appropriations subcommittee during a hearing on the NIH's proposed 2008 budget. The NIH, with a nearly $29 billion annual budget, is the main federal agency that conducts and funds medical research.

Zerhouni's comments appear to be his strongest yet in support of lifting President Bush's 2001 ban that restricted government funding to research using only embryonic stem cell lines then in existence. There are just 21 such lines now in use.

Bush issued the first and so far only veto of his presidency last year when he killed legislation that would have expanded federal funding of stem-cell research. In January, the House passed a revived proposal.

Stem cells are created in the first days after conception and typically are culled from frozen embryos, destroying them in the process. Because they go on to form the body's tissues and cells — Zerhouni called them "software of life" — scientists say they could unlock the mysteries of many diseases and one day lead to cures.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said contamination of the 21 embryonic lines available under the ban make it unlikely they ever will be used in treating humans.

Zerhouni, in answering questions from Harkin and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the only subcommittee members present for his testimony, said the limited number of cell lines aren't sufficient to do needed research.

"We cannot, I do not think, be second best in this area," Zerhouni told the two, both ardent supporters of stem-cell research. He later said other countries, including China and India, are increasing their spending on overall medical research.

Congress doubled the NIH's budget between 1998 and 2003, but it has remained essentially flat since then, when adjusted for inflation.