Bush's Stem Cell Veto Echoes in Research Field

President Bush vetoed a bill that would allow new federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Alta Charo, professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin Law School, talks about what the federal ban means to researchers. Charo spoke with Steve Inskeep.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

President Bush yesterday vetoed legislation that would have expanded federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research.

(Soundbite of applause)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Destroying human life in the hopes of saving human life is not ethical, and it is not the only option before us.

INSKEEP: The president has allowed only limited research on existing stem-cell lines since the first year of his administration, but a lot has changed in that time. And to learn more, we've called Alta Charo. She's a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin Law School. Welcome back to the program.

Professor ALTA CHARO (Law and Bioethics, University of Wisconsin Law School): Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: You know, when you consider that states have gone right around the federal limitations on stem-cell research and put up their own money, you have to wonder if the president's veto matters.

Prof. CHARO: Well, it does still matter, not only because federal funding will dwarf state funding if it ever flows, but also because with state funding come very provincial rules about how to use the funds. Only investigators in the respective states can get money from their own state governments. The ethical guidelines and regulations will vary from state to state.

The oversight procedures will vary from state to state. Even the intellectual property patent, etc. sharing will vary from state to state. And we risk creating conflicts amongst states that will hinder the research, preventing scientists from sharing cell lines or collaborating on research. And that can slow the research down.

INSKEEP: So, research is happening in the United States in certain states, but you argue that the federal limitations still matter. Let me ask about another thing that's changed over the last several years. The president himself spoke of new ways of making stem cells that avoid using human embryos, and therefore, avoid the ethical problem that he sees. Are we getting to the point where scientists may be able to do the research they want without crossing anybody's ethical boundaries?

Prof. CHARO: It would be lovely if that turns out to be the case, but all the other forms of stem-cell research are in their infancy. Some are only being done with mouse embryos and with other kinds of animals, including primates. Some using adult cells from humans are yet to prove that you can recover and maintain and immortalize the cells efficiently. Scientists want to pursue all of those avenues, as well as the gold standard, which is human embryonic stem-cell research.

INSKEEP: That's still the best way.

Prof. CHARO: It is still the most proven way to develop a line of cells that can be maintained in a laboratory dish in a state where they are completely usable to produce disease models in a dish for pharmaceutical testing, or for the growing of tissues that we might use to regenerate our organs when we get sick.

INSKEEP: Is there a feeling among scientists that the limitations on federal funding here are only going to last as long as President Bush stays in office?

Prof. CHARO: There is some expectation that if the Democrats were to win, federal funding would now flow for work on cell lines, including cell lines made after 2001. But there's also a congressional legislative limitation on the use of federal funds to work on embryos themselves, which is what you need to do in order to derive new stem-cell lines. So there will continue to be a role for private and state funding for that very important area of research - the derivation of new lines.

INSKEEP: Because federal funding is just isn't going to do it.

Prof. CHARO: It cannot do it unless Congress were to change its position, and nobody expects that the Congress will do that.

INSKEEP: Professor Charo, good to talk with you again.

Prof. CHARO: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: Alta Charo is a professor of law in bioethics at the University of Wisconsin Law School. She speaks to us after President Bush vetoed legislation that would have expanded federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research.

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