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Stem Cell Research on Course, Director Says

Times Staff Writer

The director of the National Institutes of Health, in a letter released Saturday, told more than 200 members of Congress that stem cell research is advancing in the United States but remains within the guidelines President Bush announced in 2001.

The NIH director, Elias A. Zerhouni, was responding to a bipartisan group of House members who had urged the administration to expand current stem cell policy. “We are making good progress in meeting the potential of this exciting new field of science,” Zerhouni said in a letter dated Friday. But he acknowledged at one point that “from a purely scientific perspective more cell lines may well speed some areas of human embryonic stem cell research.”

That one phrase sparked hope in the increasingly aggressive movement to expand federal studies of embryonic stem cells. The debate over stem cells has emerged as a significant issue this election year and continues to generate controversy within scientific and religious circles.

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Researchers think the cells could hold the key to breakthroughs for a wide variety of ailments, including spinal cord injury, Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes. Stem cells, sometimes called master cells, have the capacity to multiply and become any type of bodily tissue.

Stem cells are extracted from discarded embryos. The practice has drawn criticism from abortion opponents and an array of conservative and religious groups.

In August 2001, Bush issued an executive order limiting federal funds for embryonic stem cell research to a small number of existing cell colonies. Current policy, Zerhouni noted, is still predicated on Bush’s belief “that taxpayer funds should not sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos that have at least the potential for life.”

He said that since Bush’s 2001 order, 19 human embryo stem cell lines have been made widely available for research.

However, in their letter, the 206 House members wrote of their concern that there were not enough cell lines to do the research necessary to achieve significant gains. A similar bipartisan letter from a majority of the Senate is expected to be sent to the White House this week.

Meanwhile, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, continues to call for expanded stem cell research, contending that the Bush administration has chosen “ideology over science.” His comments have earned him criticism from some in the Roman Catholic Church, to which Kerry belongs.

The House letter asking for expanded stem cell research included signatures from a number of abortion opponents, among them Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) and Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-San Diego).

Nancy Reagan, the wife of former President Reagan, spoke out on the topic May 8, telling a fundraising event in Los Angeles that stem cell research must be pursued “to save families from the pain” of debilitating illness. Her husband, now 93, announced a decade ago that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He has not made public appearances in years.

The organizers of the House letter, Reps. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), held out hope that the increased pressure for expanded research and the language in Zerhouni’s response could signal some change in administration policy.

But White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan insisted Saturday that the president’s view on stem cell research had not changed. Bush is committed, she said, “to exploring the promise of stem cell research but continues to believe that we should not cross a fundamental moral line by encouraging the destruction of human embryos.”

Nonetheless, Castle said Saturday that he remained hopeful, particularly because of Zerhouni’s letter. “It gives us avenues for discussion,” he said.


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