We are pleased that the President has decided to endorse federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research, acknowledging its potential therapeutic value for the millions of Americans now suffering from debilitating diseases. The deliberative and reflective process in which the President engaged to develop the Administration’s policy testifies to the seriousness with which this matter is viewed by people throughout the world. As scientists, we share the President’s concern that stem cell research proceed in an ethical manner that engenders confidence in the American public. Indeed, we explored these subjects in depth in our 1999 report, Stem Cell Research and Applications: Monitoring the Frontiers of Biomedical Research.
How the Administration’s policy is implemented will be the real test of whether the approach the President has chosen—limiting researchers with federal funding to the use of existing stem cell lines—will be sufficient to achieve the advances in science necessary to realize promising new treatments and cures for disease. AAAS believes that several key matters will need to be resolved before the promise of the new policy can be fairly assessed.
- The President has indicated that there are more than 60 embryonic stem cell lines that could be used by federally funded scientists. Many of our scientific colleagues have questioned that number, believing it to be much smaller. Since the Administration’s policy depends heavily on the existence of these cell lines, we believe it is essential that confusion over the actual number available be resolved as soon as possible. We strongly urge, therefore, that the Administration make public immediately the identities of the sources of those stem cell lines. Until leading scientists in the field can assess their quality, it is not possible to determine whether the existing collection of those lines will be sufficient to foster productive research.
- The stem cell lines used for research must not only be of high quality, they should also be genetically variable so that researchers can account for genetic differences in the growth and development of stem cells. We are told that the cell lines are located in geographically diverse areas throughout the world. What we do not know, however, is where those cell lines originated. The genetic diversity of the available cell lines is an important consideration in determining their value in research, apart from the issue of how many there are.
- We believe it is also important to learn who derived and controls the available cell lines and what restrictions on access, whether via procedural obstacles linked to intellectual property interests or excessive costs, may be imposed on federally-funded scientists.
- We need to know how many of the existing cell lines have been derived in a manner that would meet or exceed the ethical standards that the American public expects will be associated with such research. Too often we have learned that procedures used in other parts of the world in research with human subjects do not measure up to the ethical standards that we embrace in this country.
- Regarding the President’s plan to create a new Council on Bioethics, which will be charged with recommending guidelines and making recommendations not only for stem cell research, but for other biomedical advances as well, we agree that it would be valuable to have a national body to monitor innovation in biomedical research and to promote a truly open, national dialogue on the scientific, ethical and policy issues raised by such advances. Nevertheless, there are important questions to be addressed about the membership of the Council, the scope of its mandate, and the manner by which it will conduct it business. Such a body should be truly reflective of the diversity of views in our country among scientists and the public, both in its composition and in the way it carries out its work.
- Given the current uncertainties surrounding the existing stem cell lines and the process by which scientific research advances, we urge that the new policy be periodically reassessed, perhaps by the new Council on Bioethics, so that changes may be made in order to realize to the fullest extent possible the benefits of this promising field of research.
Federal funding for all types of stem cell research is essential so that the scientific community can better understand the potential value and limitations of each of the available areas and so that those challenged daily by serious diseases may one day hope that the efforts of their government will bring relief for their suffering. As a step in that direction, it is essential that the scientific community report to the American public and to our government officials in the months ahead on whether the resources available–both cell lines and funding–will be adequate to realize the full benefits we believe this research can yield.