Following last week's news that US President George W Bush has 'reshuffled' the council that advises him on cloning and other issues in biomedical research, more bad news has emerged for embryonic stem cell (ES) cell) research in the US. A new document compiled by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that only a small number of the ES cell lines originally thought to be eligible for use by US researchers are actually available.
On 9 August 2001, President Bush announced that ES cell research supported by federal funds could only take place on stem cell lines that were already in existence on that date. Research that would cause the destruction of any further embryos for research would not be permitted. The NIH identified 78 existing ES cell lines in the world at the time. Since then, US researchers have complained that the ES cell lines available for them are not as good as later-produced lines, which were created using newer techniques, in particular without the use of mouse 'feeder' cells. Now, congressional critics have criticised Bush because 'only a fraction' of the 78 lines identified by the NIH are actually available, pointing to the fact that the new NIH document estimates that in the 'best case scenario', only 23 cell lines can be used.
In response to the NIH findings, Democrats Henry Waxman and Louise Slaughter wrote to the president, saying that 'it now appears that the administration may have misinformed the public...on an issue of great public health significance' and adding that the new research 'casts into doubt the adequacy of your policy on stem cell research'. In addition, a bi-partisan group of members of the House of Representatives are thought to be gathering signatures on a petition calling for a change in policy. Elias Zerhouni, director of the NIH, said that 15 ES cell lines are currently available for use by US federally-funded researchers and a further eight would be soon. He added that it cannot yet be calculated exactly how many of the 78 lines in existence by 9 August 2001 will eventually prove to be useable. 'It's not fair to say they will never be available, and it's not fair to say they will all be, because we don't know that', he said. But the NIH document says that at least 16 of the original 78 lines approved by President Bush have either died or failed to continue reproducing in the laboratory. Over 30 of them are the property of foreign institutions and, according to the document, are not likely to be available for 'widespread distribution at any time in the foreseeable future'. Some of the other ES cell lines are believed to be exhibiting genetic abnormalities, further undermining their potential usefulness to medical researchers.
In response to the latest criticisms and the findings of the NIH, a spokesperson for the White House said that 'the president remains committed to exploring the promise of stem cell research but continues to firmly believe that we should not cross a fundamental moral line by funding or encouraging the destruction of human embryos'.