IRA FLATOW, host:
Changing gears now to another controversial topic: embryonic stem cell research. It has been a busy week in the field. Earlier in the week, the journal Nature published two papers that some researchers say could get around some of the ethical concerns surrounding embryonic stem cell research. Those stem cells, as you've been hearing, have the potential to become any cell in the body. And many scientists believe that they could be the key to possibly curing a range of degenerative diseases. But to get the initial stem cells, to start a stem cell--sort of a colony of them requires destroying a very early embryo called a blastocyst. Destroying this ball of a few cells, really is what it is, is morally objectionable to some people.
And one of the new methods being published this week describes a way of getting cells without destroying that blastocyst, and the second other method creates one that doesn't have the ability to grow past a certain stage. That is one that could never grow into a full embryo. Would that satisfy people who have a moral or religious problem with embryonic stem cell research? Well, we'll talk about it a little bit later.
We'll also talk about what happened later in this week. In other news, in a separate development, researchers in Korea, led by Woo-suk Hwang, who have had several breakthroughs in cloning, said they're going to establish an international center to clone stem cell lines that other researchers need and they have trouble making for themselves. Well, the Koreans said they'll make them for them.
And finally, yesterday, the FDA approved a trial that would be the first transplant of fetal stem cells into humans--in human brains, and that's an attempt to treat a rare genetic disease in children called Batten's disease.
So there's a lot of stuff to sift through this hour, and we will be calling in some expert referees to help us sift through it. Our number is 1 (800) 989-8255, 1 (800) 989-TALK. You are welcome to get in on the conversation. Also, you can surf over to sciencefriday.com, where we have details about what we're talking about and other links.
Let me introduce my guests. Irving Weissman is a professor of Pathology and Developmental Biology at Stanford University, director of the Stem Cell Institute at Stanford's Medical center there. He's also a founder of a company involved in that transplant trial that I mentioned.
Welcome back to the program.
Dr. IRVING WEISSMAN (Stanford University): Thank you.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Kathy Hudson is director of the Genetics & Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.
Thank you for being with us.
Dr. KATHY HUDSON (Johns Hopkins University): Good to be here.
FLATOW: Thank you.
Dr. HUDSON: Good to be here.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Evan Snyder is a professor and director of the Stem Cells & Regeneration Program at the Burnham Institute in La Jolla, California.
Welcome back to the program.
Dr. EVAN SNYDER (Burnham Institute): Nice to be here.
FLATOW: Dr. Weissman, let me ask you to talk about these two methods. Let's talk about that first method. What did they actually do there?
Dr. WEISSMAN: So in the first paper, I think this is the Lanza one you're talking about. What they've done is they've modified, using mouse models only, a method that's been used to do what's called preimplantation genetic diagnosis. So infertile couples want to know, or couples who need to have a child that isn't born with a fatal disease, often have a very early stage of the embryo--that is after the egg is fertilized when it gets to the eight-cell stage--remove one of the eight cells for genetic diagnosis. And what the Lanza group has shown remarkably is that if you put that cell into a petri dish with cultured embryonic stem cells from mice, somehow the information gets passed to the single cell from the eight-cell stage that it might now grow like an embryonic stem cell, and you separate it from them and it does.
So the important part is the other seven cells, classically throughout in vitro fertilization history, can go on to make the blastocyst--and the blastocyst either implanted or frozen down--for future implantation. So this one clearly, if it could be translated to humans--and that's not been done, of course--would allow you to create a pluripotent embryonic stem cell line without killing the early stages of development. So that's the first one.
FLATOW: All right. Let me hold you on that one, because we have to take a little break, get some business done, allow our stations to identify themselves. We'll come right back and talk more. We'll continue with the other topics. Lot to talk about, stem cell research. Talking with Kathy Hudson, Evan Snyder and Irving Weissman. And taking your calls, 1 (800) 989-8255. Stay with us.
I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
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FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking this hour about stem cell research. And my first guest, Irving Weissman, has been talking about one method that was talked about in Nature this week that was sort of--you said something like--that is already being done with pregnant women cells.
Dr. WEISSMAN: That's right. Not with pregnant women, but with women who go...
FLATOW: Right, right, right.
Dr. WEISSMAN: ...with their spouse or partner...
Dr. WEISSMAN: ...to an in vitro fertilization clinic.
Dr. WEISSMAN: So there--if it could be translated to human cells, and nobody knows how long it would take, because there was a 13-year interval between making the first mouse embryonic stem cells and then making the first human embryonic stem cells. So it'll take a long time perhaps in between. But what it does for sure, for the mouse, is allow you to make this embryonic stem cell line from the single cell and to make the blastocyst for implantation to make a child from the other seven cells.
FLATOW: Let's talk about method number two that they mentioned.
Dr. WEISSMAN: Sure. So this is from Meissner and Jaenisch at MIT. This is very clever. It's derived from experiments that had first been done by a person named Janet Rossant in Toronto, and what she had shown was that in the very first stages of the development before implantation, when you go from one cell to two to four to eight, 16, 32, 64, and then the blastocyst, 128, roughly, cells, that the outer ball of cells forms a layer that will not contribute to the embryo or the later fetus. What it does is it allows the ball to implant in the uterus, to stick there and to start to develop the formation of the placenta only. She showed a gene called CDX-2 necessary for those cells to grow and have that function. The small number of cells inside the ball called the inner cells or the inner cell mass are the only cells that will turn into the embryo, and that gene doesn't affect the development of that inner cell mass.
So what the Jaenisch group did was to introduce into a normal body cell, like from ours, but it comes from the body of a mouse, a skin cell, that gene or actually an inhibitor of that gene. Now they're going to do a trick called nuclear transfer. So they're going to take the genetic material from the mouse cells, which has all the genes from the mouse body, put it into an egg of another mouse that had its own genes removed, and there's a process there called nuclear transfer, which can lead to the formation of a blastocyst, that ball, from which you would remove the inner cells to form a pluripotent or embryoniclike stem cell line.
Now the objection, of course, always in the past was that you were creating a real embryo and that real embryo--although it isn't real--that real embryo would have to be destroyed for research, so you were creating an entity for research that you were destroying, and some people in our society believe that's the same as a real embryo, and I'm willing to argue that with a lot of people. But let's just leave that aside. So what the Jaenisch group did is put in the gene that prevents the development of the cells that could form the blastocyst, but doesn't prevent the development of the cells that can become pluripotent, and so they do.
That's the simplest form of that experiment, and so even one of the president's Bioethics Council members, Bill Hurlbut, has been pushing this as an alternative which should be ethically acceptable to those groups who feel that it's wrong to create an embryo with full human potential, but this, since it has no full potential, wouldn't be humanlike, and so it would be an artifact, an altered nuclear transfer. Now again, this is done in the mice. And it did involve putting the nucleus into eggs and does use eggs. If you ever did it with humans, it would be a long time before it would be ready. But in principle, it could be done, just like in principle, the Lanza thing could be done.
FLATOW: Evan Snyder, what's your opinion of these?
Dr. SNYDER: Oh, I think that they're very interesting techniques, and interestingly, as a scientist, I've also been quite interested in the ethical aspects of stem cell research, and I've long been an advocate of the view that if science and technology has somehow created areas of controversy, then maybe science itself can find some of the solutions, pave some of the roads to consensus in some of this.
And at our institution down in San Diego, we've convened two ethics conferences where we've actually discussed these in theory, each one of these, plus another technique that was described by Kevin Eggan a month ago in which you reprogram a nucleus. Interestingly, these theoretical types of approaches now are being shown to be feasible, at least in mice. So I find it a very fascinating approach. It raises the question--and this often is the controversy that even scientists engage in--is, are these worthwhile pursuits for scientists to do? Sometimes we're accused of saying that we're kowtowing to a minority of people that have objections to this kind of technology. And many scientists feel that at least in a pluralistic society, attempts to find consensus is, in itself, a worthwhile pursuit, so long as it does not divert funds from other important areas of research. So this is very interesting. And I think that as a scientist, we always learn from every experiment, and inevitably, we still will learn some important biology from these kind of experiments.
FLATOW: Kathy Hudson, do you think that this attempt to find consensus will unite the polarized sides on this?
Dr. HUDSON: I think the availability of alternatives at some point in the future might allow people who are now opposed to embryonic stem cell research to have something that they can support. But that turns out not to really affect the views of those who right now want to move ahead with embryonic stem cell research using either embryos that are remaining after in vitro fertilization or embryos that are specifically created for research purposes.
FLATOW: And that's a question. These are just potentially, possibly, maybe--you know, even though they were successful in these mouse models--would people--you know, would people say or would--does this give ammunition to possibly politicians or people who are against embryonic stem cell research to say slow down on this other research, because let's give these a chance to progress?
Dr. HUDSON: We ask--in a survey that we conducted last month, we asked 2,212 people, would they be willing to delay medical progress in order to find sources of stem cells that don't involve the destruction of an embryo? And if so, for how long? And the sobering statistics are that only 48 percent said, `No, I wouldn't tolerate any delay at all in medical research in order to find alternatives.' And nearly a quarter said they would be willing to wait forever in order to find an alternative source of stem cells.
FLATOW: That's a long time.
Dr. HUDSON: It's a long time.
FLATOW: 1 (800)...
Dr. WEISSMAN: But there...
FLATOW: Yes, go ahead.
Dr. WEISSMAN: You'll...
FLATOW: Let me just give out the number, 1 (800) 989-8255. Yes, go ahead.
Dr. WEISSMAN: But, of course, the population that you asked that question of are people who are taken off the street, of course, and have to come up with a quick answer. Now if you had asked somebody who has in their family a member with a disease that potentially could be treatable, they're more directly involved. And I think this is the key point that most people miss--and I'd just like to say it--that these kinds of medical research, whether it's embryonic or nuclear transfer or altered nuclear transfer or this blastomere, in the end, every one of these researches are aimed at trying to save people's lives. That's--clear translation: to save people's lives.
If we can make nuclear transfer cell lines using the nucleus of a cell with somebody that has a complex genetic disease like Lou Gehrig's disease, we might, for the first time, have a cell line that gets Lou Gehrig's disease when it tries to make its motor neurons. In that way, you could try to ask what gene has gone wrong and you could try to treat the disease. That's one of a hundred thousand examples, but the important point is that if we now consider that the lives of born humans are important enough--and all MDs have to consider that, they have no choice--are important enough to try to push forward, then you've got to say, `OK, which of the diseases aren't so important? Whose lives are not so important?' Because even a delay will prevent those people who had a narrow window of opportunity from having their lives saved.
And if you think this is just baloney, just remember the recombinant DNA revolution that was debated in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There were people who were saved because they could get insulin that was human rather than bovine or pig. They were allergic to it. There were people who were saved who had kidney failure and now live because of the erythropoietin, saved for life. I mean, so what's the missing part here is that we have on one side people's lives at stake and they're going and, you know, they're not sitting up there saying stem cell research, because they're at risk. And the other hal--you have a ball of cells which some people in our society say have the same rights as those born human beings who are dying of diseases that we want to stop.
Dr. SNYDER: I did--if I could, I just wanted to reiterate what Irv said; that as physicians, our ultimate goal is to relieve suffering, and that we've established certain gold standards of what we think stem cells can achieve. If even these alternative techniques do not achieve that gold standard, then they should be regarded as suboptimal and not be the route that we pursue. We should always--I think we're obligated as physicians and scientists to give our patients the absolute best techniques we can.
FLATOW: Well, you'd also be obligated, I would think, scientifically to go down these other avenues that we're talking about in the Nature papers today, wouldn't you not?
Dr. WEISSMAN: Well, in a way. Sorry, Evan, I'll just do it quick. I am in favor of those other avenues being done because I know if scientists--Catholic scientists who felt they couldn't do the research with the classical cell lines, either from regular embryonic stem cells or from this nuclear transfer, but one of the most prominent ones--I won't mention his name; now he can call in--says, `Now I can do it.' And discoveries happen when great people, great scientists, put their full mettle and laboratory forces on it. So bringing in just a few great scientists like this person, I believe, enhances the chances of cures. So I'm not trying to convince Sam Brownback, I promise you. Because I don't think he's going to be convinced. But if I can convince these two or three great stem cell scientists who are holding back for their own religious reasons, that now there is a method that they, too, can help participate in trying to learn about disease and treat it, then it's worth it.
Dr. SNYDER: Right. Ultimately the data will determine the answer. We scientists have to compare all these various techniques head to head, side by side, same models, same metrics, some outcomes and really let the data and not preconceptions decide.
FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255. Betsy in Duxbury, Mass. Hi, Betsy.
BETSY (Caller): Hi. This is Betsy. Ira, I'm so delighted to talk to you.
FLATOW: Thank you.
BETSY: My point is really an ethical one. I don't see the difference between transplants--owner (technical difficulty) from someone who's died, you know, with respect to, for instance, in vitro eggs that are going to be tossed away. What's the difference, you know? In fact, it's life that's giving life, just like a transplant--donor transplant organ saves the life of the recipient.
FLATOW: Kathy, got any comment on that?
Dr. HUDSON: Well, at the very heart of the debate on Capitol Hill, in state legislatures and op-ed pages of American newspapers has been what is the moral status of a one-week-old embryo in a petri dish. And the impression that a casual observer would get from walking away from observing that debate is that it's a black and white issue. It's sort of binary. When we polled the American public, who I think I have more confidence in sort of what they know and having some confidence in what their beliefs are--when we asked them what moral status they give to a one-week-old embryo in a petri dish, we found that there is a moral divide. There are about a third of people saying that an embryo has maximum moral worth and about a third who say it has none. But it turns out that that's not a perfect predictor of their views. So surprisingly, over a third of those who say an embryo has maximum moral worth, nonetheless, support embryonic stem cell research and support a policy that would be more permissive toward stem cell research than is currently in place today, and you wouldn't necessarily get that impression about what the Americans' views are from just listening to the debate that's going on right now.
FLATOW: Thank you, Betsy, for calling.
We're talking about stem cell research this hour on TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
Talking with three distinguished scientists, Kathy Hudson, Evan Snyder and Irving Weissman. Our number, 1 (800) 989-8255. There's so much to talk about. Let me move on to a couple of other developments. And first, Dr. Weissman--or Dr. Snyder, let me go back to this idea that was announced this week about--I think in some papers it was described as creating an offshore stem-cell bank in which the famous Korean laboratory that has been successful in actually creating--cloning up to a certain stage a human embryo is now going to supply embryonic stem cells for people who can't make it on their own. And is your company involved in that?
Dr. WEISSMAN: No, my company isn't.
FLATOW: No. I'm confusing it. It's your lab, is it not?
Dr. WEISSMAN: Not my lab--so there is no company, as far as I can tell that's involved in Woo-suk Kwang's great research. There's no doubt that he and his laboratory have perfected and published a method which allows a very small number of eggs to be used for this nuclear transfer to make patient or disease-specific cell lines, stem-cell lines, pluripotent stem-cell lines. It was a remarkable set of discoveries. It was the kind of research that, of course, could not be funded in the US, and that's why they beat us out, to be frank. And on the downside, they have filed patents on the method, and so when eventually it is used, then people in the United States who want to develop products or therapies from that will probably have to get licenses from Korea rather than from the United States.
On the upside, I think it's remarkably generous of them to say, `We will spread this technology by having a place in Korea, place in Oxford and a place in California where we'll do those lines.' I think it's very important for us to understand that they went through years of research to get this technology so that a minimum number of eggs needed to be used with a maximum chance of success. So for those states, like California, which permit the experimentation with those kinds of cell lines, this is an incredible boon. I hope that they find a way to do it in California, and from my own personal point of view I hope it's pretty close to Stanford.
Dr. SNYDER: You know, this very much is in the spirit of academic scientific collaboration that I think permeates many areas of science throughout the world, and is particularly starting to take hold in the stem cell field. I think we're starting to realize that some groups have an incredible amount of knowledge about particular techniques and other groups don't. And the Koreans, I think, really are very generous, as Irv said, in joining the fraternity of stem-cell biologists and recognizing their technology is only useful if it's partnered with...
Dr. SNYDER: ...important biology and that's what we have to offer.
FLATOW: All right. We'll talk about what other things there are on the plate. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.
I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I am Ira Flatow.
We're talking this hour about stem-cell research with my guests, Kathy Hudson, director of Genetics & Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins; Irving Weissman, professor of pathology and developmental biology at Stanford University; and Evan Snyder, professor and director of the Stem Cells & Regenerative program at Burnham Institute in La Jolla. Our number, 1 (800) 989-8255.
Before we run out of time I want to move on to this other--I guess it's the fourth bit of news this week, and that is about using fetal cells in brain--first time being allowed to inject cells into the brain of children. Dr. Weissman, can you fill us in on that?
Dr. WEISSMAN: Well, first, I better say--this is unexpected this is going to come up on this program--that I am co-founder of the company and I have stock in the company and I get consulting fees from the company, so I am nervous about talking about it in public because even if I don't think I'm biased, a bias could come across.
FLATOW: OK. Full disclosure, OK then. Just describe what you're doing.
Dr. WEISSMAN: Well, what the company is doing is they've found a method of isolating from fetal or postnatal human brains the rare cell that is one of the human brain stem cells. It may not be the only one, but it is the human brain stem cell. Then they developed a method to grow it up to very large numbers while retaining its stem cell characteristics. When those cells were put into various preclinical situations--immunodeficient mice that have no immune system so they can't reject 'em--then there were mice with one of the diseases they're trying to approach, a horrible childhood disease that Evan probably knows much more about than I do called Batten disease, where the children because they lack a single gene, a single enzyme become blind and lose balance, lose cognitive capacity and always die. So it turns out that the human brain cells grown in this way--brain stem cells and their daughters--make the enzyme, secret it in sufficient quantity that at least in the mouse studies they can stop the process of destruction at the level it had achieved when they did the injection or sometime thereafter. Therefore, it is possible as a leader for the first of the human cell therapies to try this.
Now these cells have also worked in mouse models of severe spinal cord injury done by the people at the Reeves Institute, Aileen Anderson and Brian Cummings. And so it is kind of a leader, and the important thing, I would say, for people in the cell therapy, whether it's business or academic, is now the FDA has said we're going to regulate it and here's what you need to do to do these kind of clinical experiments. Now go ahead and go it carefully.
FLATOW: And when might these be started?
Dr. WEISSMAN: That entirely is up to the institutional review boards. Now so independent of the FDA is another level of approval that at each hospital that proposes to do this as a clinical experiment, there are laypeople and scientists and ethicists and lawyers who look from the medical ethical point of view whether they want this done at their institution.
FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255 is our number. Want to go back to this Korean collaboration a little bit with Dr. Snyder. I--it is your research group that said it will collaborate with the Koreans, is that correct?
Dr. SNYDER: Ah, yes.
FLATOW: In starting this stem-cell bank. How does that work in practical--give us a flow chart of how that works.
Dr. SNYDER: Well, the details still need to be worked out, and quite frankly, we view it in the spirit of an academic collaboration, and very interestingly, what we want to do and what we proposed to the Korean group and they've embraced is the notion of trying to create lines that model human diseases. And we decided that the best proof of concept would be to model a disease that has a single-gene defect, one of these childhood diseases, very much in the same spirit that Irv's company is going to be approaching some of these childhood diseases. It's a very rare disease called Leshnian disease(ph), but because--there is no good model for this very devastating disease because the gene is very well-characterized and we can tell whether we've made a line that really does model what this gene should do, what the mice could have, what the kids have, we think that this is a perfect opportunity, again, to take the theoretical possibility of using stem cells as models of disease and demonstrating its bona fide feasibility. So that's the spirit of our collaboration. In doing that, I think we will help the Koreans also further evolve their own technology and their knowledge of disease. So we'll help them with the technology; they'll help us with the technology.
FLATOW: Kathy Hudson, I know our legislators watch what's going on abroad and they see the stem-cell research magnifying in of all places Korea, which doesn't have the biggest, you know, gross national product in the world or--and they see places like Great Britain welcoming stem cells and other places, and now we saw just a bit of a groundswell of Senate support a little bit earlier, a few months ago, saying maybe we should, you know, revisit what President Bush said in 2001 about the limitation of stem-cell research. And there was a bill circulating around to change those limits. Whatever happened to that legislation?
Kathy, are you there? Oh, we lost her.
Dr. SNYDER: Maybe we bored her.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Well, anybody--do you know, Evan or Irving, what happened?
Dr. SNYDER: Well, I think, again, I'm probably not as knowledgeable as Kathy about it, but I think that the legislation is still perking along. There's obviously been a lot of other priorities that have kind of reared their heads since Congress adjourned just before the summer. But I think that most observers believe that before this winter session adjourns that it'll at least be addressed.
Dr. WEISSMAN: Yeah, there are. Oh, go ahead.
FLATOW: No, go ahead. I'm waiting for your answer.
Dr. WEISSMAN: There are several bills ranging from two from Senator Brownback at the Senate level, one to criminalize any production of new embryonic stem-cell lines, especially nuclear transfer by any method. And it would be a million-dollar fine, 10 years in jail. And that would be if you did the experiments or if you went to Korea, for example, or Singapore or England or Israel and got a therapy based from it. So that's, I would say, on the negative side.
There's another bill by Brownback to prohibit these kinds of cellular transplants to see if brain cells will work in the brains of mice, with limitations. It's not as severe, but it certainly goes right to the heart of the kinds of experiments that are on the critical path to try to see can we do this in humans effectively and treat these diseases.
Then on the other side, there's the classic bills by Orrin Hatch, Arlen Specter, Dianne Feinstein, Ted Kennedy and Tom Harkin, with which I believe Ted Stevens agrees, to move carefully and cautiously, but to approve and fund at the federal level this kind of research, the embryonic stem-cell research, the nuclear transfer research, and it would include the two kinds of findings that were in Nature this week. So those are all up and Bill Frist has announced his public support to expand our stem-cell work.
There was another bill put in by Castle and DeGette, one in the House, one in the Senate, where they said, well, at least let us make new classical embryonic stem-cell lines from leftover blastocysts in in vitro fertilization clinics because we now know that the first ones approved by the president for research funding are fatally flawed and can't be used for therapy, so at least let us expand it and make more lines even though that wouldn't address most of the issues that nuclear transfer and the stuff we've been talking about on this program address.
FLATOW: Dr. Snyder, California, you know, has the largest pool of money that we've been hearing about.
Dr. SNYDER: Potential pool of money.
FLATOW: Po--(laughs)--oh, details, details. Have they decided what to do with it yet or how it would be parceled out, or is there a plan? Is there a czar? Is there someone who would, you know, oversee the whole thing, or is a scramble?
Dr. SNYDER: No, no, it's definitely not a scramble. In fact, there's a really beautifully organized infrastructure in place headed by Zach Hall, in which there's a proper oversight board. There've actually been requests for applications already issued in response to which grants--very well-crafted grants were submitted and evaluated, vetted and grants awarded, which actually are involved in training. So despite the fact that the stream of money hasn't been flowing, the actual progress of the science and the actual progress of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine is moving along quite well, and we anticipate that soon the funding will also be loosened up.
Dr. WEISSMAN: We hope. We hope.
Dr. SNYDER: We hope. Right.
Dr. WEISSMAN: There are lawsuits which are...
Dr. SNYDER: Right.
Dr. WEISSMAN: ...from the people who lost in the debate for various reasons, and they've been collected together and I understand hopefully sometime, but no sooner probably than next year they'll be settled.
Let me just add something 'cause it's really important and it's about what you were just talking about--that is, are we losing our competitive edge in America because we have these ideologically based laws to block certain kinds of research or funding or so on? Here at Stanford we've been heavily recruiting people that we think are great, some who want to leave, for example, the National Institutes of Health because they think they can do their research elsewhere. And unfortunately, I have to say that we're losing out to Singapore because Singapore can go ahead and fund them right now, and they look at what's happening here and they're saying, `Well, you know, I really have to do this research, and I don't know how long I'm going to be able to wait.'
FLATOW: I see. Kathy Hudson, welcome back.
Dr. HUDSON: Thank you.
FLATOW: Let me--'cause we only have a few minutes later.
Dr. HUDSON: Yeah.
FLATOW: Do you see any shift in your polling in attitudes or sense that maybe the more we talk about this or should some great breakthrough maybe in diabetes or something like that happen and people will start to flood in one direction?
Dr. HUDSON: In our survey we asked people what their current policy preferences are, and 60 percent support a policy that's more permissive towards stem-cell research than is currently in place. And then we proposed a set of scenarios, and one of those was if scientists were able to find a treatment for a devastating disease like diabetes, would it change your views about stem-cell research and your policy preferences. And 25 percent of the people who support the current policy or even a more restrictive policy shifted their policy positions and now supported a more permissive approach. I think many people have already integrated the future prospect of cures and treatments into their current policy perspectives because embryonic stem-cell research is very widely known. About 82 percent of Americans know about this research and understand really what it's about. So I think we're not going to see huge shifts in people's attitudes as the science evolves, but significant shifts.
FLATOW: Any shift in policy-maker attitudes?
Dr. HUDSON: There is a constant, constant pressure being brought to bear in the Senate and the House of Representatives, and I think that's going to continue. You know, things are looking not very good right now for the rest of this calendar year, unless Senator Specter manages to get something onto the health appropriations bill, which I think is unlikely. So I think we'll see it come up again next year, and whether or not there's some combination of relaxing the current restrictions and supporting research in animals on these alternatives, we may be able to get a bill passed by both the House and the Senate and the big question mark then is what happens when it lands on the president's desk.
Dr. SNYDER: Ira, with respect to that, could I just...
Dr. SNYDER: ...I just want to emphasize how important in this regard the proposed clinical studies that Irv's group is proposing to do is because I've been a very, very long advocate of saying that some of the low-hanging fruit for the stem-cell field--in other words, some of the early successes will come, and demonstrating the usefulness of stem cells will come from trying to address some of these rare but very important and well-understood childhood diseases where you have the stem cell do not a whole lot, but simply replace a missing enzyme, and the disease that the clinical trial is going to address falls into the category of these diseases. There are a number of them. And I'm very comfortable that we will see some early successes in these very bad diseases, and that may in fact influence a lot of the opinions of policy-makers and the population.
FLATOW: And you agree with that, Kathy?
Dr. HUDSON: I do agree with that.
FLATOW: Yeah? Will there any--be--do you think there's going to be any room in the agenda with what's going on, you know, in the halls of the Capitol these days--to get anything else on the floor of the Senate?
Dr. HUDSON: Well, they've got a lot on their agenda right now.
Dr. HUDSON: We've got, you know, Supreme Court nominations going forward. We've got disaster relief that's occupying a lot of people's time. There's, you know, a sort of a shrinking amount of money available for biomedical research over what was anticipated, so there's a lot of things on the agenda, but there's an emerging consensus, I think, certainly an emerging majority among the American population and certainly among Congress--people in the House of Representatives that we need to do something to relax the current restrictions and allow this research to go forward.
FLATOW: Well, we'll have to wait and see how this all plays out. Who knows? There might be some sort of advance that will advance the idea, you know, that something could happen--Could it not?--that some breakthrough, some sort of...
Dr. WEISSMAN: I think the most important thing is education. That's what the campaign in California really showed. The polls did change dramatically from when it was just a small group of people who hadn't yet gone to the public and said, `Here's what it is. Here's what it can do. Here's what it can do without any hype. Here's, you know, the hype that you'll hear.'
Dr. WEISSMAN: Our populace can get it if they have enough time to hear the story, and they can get it and then act on it as they did in California.
FLATOW: I have to share with you--I only have about 30 seconds--but last January I was doing a panel on embryonic stem cells and a member of the United Nations, a delegate, came up to me. He was in the audience. He said, `You know, after I saw this blastocyst, I was re-educated. I thought we were killing whole babies here to get these stem cells...
Dr. HUDSON: Well...
FLATOW: ...and then it's amazing what kind of information's going around.
Dr. WEISSMAN: Oh, yeah, because if you look at the Web site of the antis that's what they show: whole babies.
Dr. HUDSON: But that's not what people believe, so we gave people an image of a four-week fetus, of a one-week embryo and a 12-week embryo, and 73 percent of Americans, a cross-section of Americans, were able to correctly identify what an embryo looked like.
Dr. WEISSMAN: Terrific.
Dr. HUDSON: So that's really good news. People--and misidentifying either a four-week fetus or a 12-week fetus is not correlated with attitudes. So it's not the case that the people who are firmly opposed to stem-cell research believe--have a mental image--of an embryo as a little homunculus. That's not really holding up, so I'm encouraged as a developmental biologist that people can correctly identify a human embryo.
FLATOW: All right. All right.
Dr. HUDSON: It's not correlated.
FLATOW: Well, we have to go. I'd like to thank my guests Irving Weissman, Kathy Hudson and Evan Snyder for talking with us today about embryonic stem-cell research. Thank you all for joining us.
Dr. SNYDER: Sure. Bye-bye.
Dr. WEISSMAN: Thank you.
FLATOW: You're welcome.
That's about all the time we have today. I'd like to tell you to surf over to our Web site at sciencefriday.com where we've got podcast in case you missed any of our stuff we talked about. Also, we have the links there and SCIENCE FRIDAY Kids' Connection, which are free curricula that you can download for teaching SCIENCE FRIDAY material in your classroom.
I'm Ira Flatow in New York.
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