What Now For Federally Funded Stem Cell Work?

A federal judge has blocked President Obama's 2009 executive order expanding embryonic stem cell research. U.S. Rep. Diana DeGett (D-Colo.) and stem cell researcher Rudolph Jaenisch discuss the ruling's impact on scientists, and whether Congress can pass stem cell legislation.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

Last year, President Obama signed an executive order that loosened up President Bush's restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. That gave researchers more opportunities to spend federal research dollars working with embryonic stem cells.

But this week, a federal judge said not so fast, imposing even more limits on the research than were in place under George W. Bush's administration.

All this back and forth has confused scientists, who aren't quite sure just what they are allowed to do now. The Obama White House has pledged to appeal the ruling, but one alternative would be to pass the political hot potato to Capitol Hill, where Congress might pass a simple law that governs embryonic stem cell research.

Lawmakers have tried that in the past, but the bills never made it past President Bush's desk. We now have a different president.

Another option is for scientists to forget about embryonic stem cells and focus on newer methods, like transforming regular adult cells into stem cells.

But how productive is that option? That's what we'll be talking about first up this hour, if you'd like to get in on the discussion. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Or go to our website and join the discussion over there.

Let me introduce my guests. Representative Diana DeGette is a Colorado Democrat in the House of Representatives and vice-chair of the House's Committee on Energy and Commerce. She joins us on the phone. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Representative DIANA DeGETTE (Democrat, Colorado): Good to be with you, Ira.

FLATOW: Thank you. Rudolf Jaenisch is a biology professor at the Whitehead Institute at MIT in Cambridge, and he joins us by phone. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Jaenisch.

Dr. RUDOLF JAENISCH (Professor of Biology, Whitehead Institute, Department of Biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Hi, welcome.

FLATOW: How does this affect your work, doctor?

Dr. JAENISCH: Well, I think as I understand this ruling, it would be very restrictive, more restrictive than we had under the previous Bush administration. It would really prevent any funding for embryonic stem cell research from a federal - NIH money. I think that would be rather devastating for the research on stem cells in this country.

FLATOW: Representative DeGette, you have tried before to get past this law, have you not?

Rep. DeGETTE: We actually did pass the bill to expand stem cell research two times, and President Bush vetoed it twice. It was passed in a solid, bipartisan majority in the House and importantly with 68 votes in the Senate. So we think we're well-situated to pass the legislation now.

In fact, when the president signed - when President Obama signed his executive order, he urged Congress to pass legislation, and we've been trying to do that ever since.

So we're actually ready to pass legislation that would allow for ethical embryonic stem cell research.

FLATOW: Do you think with all the things on the agenda and the mind of Congress, they're willing to put some attention to this?

Rep. DeGETTE: Well, after President Obama signed the executive order, frankly, a lot of people in Congress felt like the issue had been resolved. They felt like there were other priorities. So it fell low on the list.

But the you are absolutely correct. This court opinion is so restrictive, it even prevents the limited funding that President Bush had allowed. And since it's an injunction, many people feel that researchers have to stop using federal money for research on these stem cell lines right away.

So it is a devastating blow to ethical stem cell research, and it's one that's going to need to be addressed quite quickly. Researchers are already working on these stem cell lines, and in fact, the NIH was getting ready to make a lot of grants this week for embryonic stem cell research. They were even getting ready to approve new stem cell lines. All of that has come to a grinding halt. So there's a great feeling of urgency in the Congress.

FLATOW: Dr. Jaenisch, instead of working with embryonic stem cells, we keep seeing new advances with stem cells themselves. Why not switch to working with these adult stem cells that are reprogrammed to become pluripotent stem cells?

Dr. JAENISCH: So let me just define some of these different stem cells. Adult stem cells is a very important type of cells, but their potential to differentiate is only for the tissue they come from. So blood stem cells can make whole cells out of the blood but not liver cells or nerve cells. But neural stem cells can make nerve cells but not liver and blood. So they're committed. We call them committed cells.

Embryonic stem cells can do everything. They can grow indefinitely in culture. They have this replicative potential. That's what makes them so interesting.

So what the people who are against this type of research would argue is why not work just with adult stem cells because they can do everything? That is false. That ignores the scientific evidence.

I would argue that these are not alternative types of research, but they're complimentary. I'm really a proponent of adult stem cell research. We need that. We need this to fully realize the potential of embryonic stem cells. So both of these need to be funded and not alternatives.

Now, the third type of stem cells, which has been very recently developed, are these so-called induced pluripotent stem cells, or IPS cells. They are derived not from embryos but from adult cells, like skin cells.

Now, those are very, very interesting cells, and they have a lot of similarities. Maybe they're almost identical to embryonic stem cells. The problem is we do not know at this point what is a good embryonic stem cell or what is a good IPS cell. We now know it depends on how you isolate these cells, and they have different properties.

So one of the very important issues of present research is to define what is the gold standard for pluripotent, a stem cell like an IPS cell, or an embryonic stem cell. And that's why I think it's essential to work with embryonic stem cells and, I would argue, even to isolate new embryonic stem cell lines under different conditions.

FLATOW: Representative DeGette, do you have any schedule or timetable you can tell us when this might be brought up for a vote or voted in committee or out of committee onto the floor?

Rep. DeGETTE: Well, we Congressman Mike Castle from Delaware and I, my Republican co-sponsor on this bill, we've already introduced the bill, re-introduced the bill in the House. And we've been working on the legislation. And so I feel that we could bring it up quite quickly in September.

In the Senate, I know that Senator Harkin has already scheduled hearings on this the first week of September. Our goal, because of the urgency of this situation, and frankly the sweeping impact of the judge's decision, we really think we can bring it up quickly in September, and we're going to be talking to our leadership about that.

FLATOW: Dr. Jaenisch, how helpful to you was President Obama's executive order last year?

Dr. JAENISCH: I think it gave us a lot of hope that now things would relax, and we could work with these embryonic stem cells with federal funding, and there was the process of NIH to approve newly derived lines. I think it was rather efficient. So many, many new lines have been approved.

Now, this seems to be all in jeopardy now, and this makes people very concerned because experiments have been started with these cells, and now we have to discontinue this. We can't work with those anymore. That puts a monkey wrench in ongoing research.

FLATOW: Were you surprised that this lawsuit was actually brought to court by a couple of scientists?

Dr. JAENISCH: Yes, I was very surprised. Now, one of the claimants was James Shirley, a former member of MIT, and I was surprised. As I understand, his argument, one of his arguments at least, was that he felt that he couldn't get funding because there's competition for funds from other research, from embryonic stem cell researchers.

Now, this is very weird to me, very puzzling because in this country, the support for science is determined by panels of scientists, review boards who prioritize who should get funding, who should not. It's called the peer review process.

Now, if your grant doesn't get through this peer review process, then it means it is worth it's not worth to be supported. So what is the consequence? I think you would write a new grant but not going to ask a judge or the judicial system to determine whether your research, which was found maybe not to be fundable, to be funded. That to me is very puzzling.

Rep. DeGETTE: Ira, I would say also, I'm sure Dr. Jaenisch would agree that the vast majority of researchers who work in this area believe, as he does, that we need both embryonic stem cells and IPS cells, as well as the adult cells to do this research.

So it's really not like there are two competing wings of researchers. It's really only a very few who are opposed to this research. The vast majority of them, including Dr. Francis Collins, the head of NIH, believe that this research is essential.

FLATOW: You know...

Dr. JAENISCH: Yeah, I totally agree with you on this point.

FLATOW: Representative DeGette, tell us why you're so interested in this and why you have worked for years to get this passed?

Rep. DeGETTE: Well, I first got involved with this research in the late 1990s. I'm the co-chair of the Diabetes Caucus. I have a young daughter myself who has Type 1 diabetes. And this was one of the first of many diseases that embryonic stem cell research showed great promise for.

In fact, there are diseases that impact about 110 million Americans, and already we've seen some tentative breakthroughs with the very early infancy of stem cell research with nerve regeneration, with macular degeneration of the eyes and with Parkinson's disease.

So there are so many diseases that this research could really help us unlock some cures. We're still in the very early stages, but we have to support ethical research. And that's why I've been involved in this for now over 10 years.

FLATOW: And we've seen that there are colleagues of yours who we might, on the conservative Republican side, who you might not suspect that they would be in support, but they are because they have similar stories to tell like yours. And when it hits home, people suddenly see the light about stem cell research.

Rep. DeGETTE: You know, I've spent a lot of time talking to Senator Orrin Hatch about this.

FLATOW: Yeah, he's one that I was talking about, yeah.

Rep. DeGETTE: A conservative Republican. And here's what Orrin says to me. He says, you know, these embryonic stem cells, they are embryos created for in-vitro fertilization techniques. They don't they're not needed anymore, and so what happens is they're thrown away as medical waste.

What we want to do is allow people to donate those embryos when they don't -the couples who they were created for, when they don't need them, for medical research. And what Senator Hatch says, to him that's the ultimate pro-life decision. They were created for life, and then they can be donated to help save someone else's life. I think that's really persuasive.

FLATOW: Thank you both for taking time to talk with us, and good luck to both of you.

Rep. DeGETTE: Good to be with you.

FLATOW: Representative Diana DeGette, who is a Colorado Democrat in the House of Representatives; and Rudolf Jaenisch, biology professor at Whitehead Institute at MIT. We're going to take a short break, when we come back talk about solar and wind power. Stay with us.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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