Mixed Forecast for Stem Cells

A week and a half after George W. Bush moved into the White House, U.S. scientists are still uncertain whether the Administration will allow the federal government to fund research on stem cells. Bush has given mixed messages on the issue, but proponents of stem cell research are hopeful that the new Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, may help sway Bush's view in their favor.

In his first comments on the issue since taking office, Bush told reporters last Friday that "I believe there are some wonderful opportunities for adult stem cell research," and that "I believe we can find stem cells from fetuses that died a natural death. And I do not support research from aborted fetuses."

But Bush did not say whether he would block a National Institutes of Health (NIH) plan to fund research on the cells (ScienceNOW, 23 August 2000), which scientists believe might eventually treat a range of diseases. And he voiced no opinion on the acceptability of research on cells derived from another controversial source: frozen "excess" embryos slated for disposal at fertility clinics. White House aides, however, told reporters the president was signaling his intention to block NIH's plan.

But stem cell enthusiasts are cautiously optimistic about the appointment of Thompson, who will oversee NIH. As governor of Wisconsin, Thomson supported embryonic stem cell research, even hosting a reception at the governor's mansion celebrating the stem cell breakthroughs made at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. And in Congress, a spokesperson for senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) said that Specter, a vocal supporter of stem cell research, intends to reintroduce a bill that would allow NIH's plan to go forward. Last year, opponents blocked debate on a similar measure.