Support for Stem Cell Research?

President George W. Bush hasn't modified his position on stem cells. But some advocates see a 15 May letter from the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a signal that a review may be in the offing.

NIH's Elias Zerhouni was responding to a plea by 206 House members asking the White House to "modify" its policy prohibiting federal support of research on any human embryonic stem cell (HESC) lines created after 9 August 2001. Most of the four-page letter describes what NIH is doing for stem cell research. But what got advocates excited was this statement: "Although it is also fair to say that, from a purely scientific perspective, more cell lines may well speed some areas of HESC research, the President's position is still predicated" on his opposition to the destruction of human embryos.

Zerhouni's letter was the first hint of possible movement by the White House since the president outlined his stance. Two years ago, at his Senate confirmation, Zerhouni indicated that he would make the case for more lines "if it becomes evident through this research that there are pathways to develop cures ..." (Science, 10 May 2002, p. 997). Now advocates think Zerhouni could be moving in that direction. "This is the first time the Administration has indicated that access to more stem cell lines will speed research," says Larry Soler of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. "I think it's a big deal." Representative Michael Castle (R-DE), one of the organizers of the House initiative, acknowledged that Zerhouni's statement is "certainly not a change in policy." But "I look upon it as an invitation to have further discussions." Castle and Representative Diana DeGette (D-CO) hope to meet later this month with White House officials.

The move to broaden the Bush restrictions isn't confined to the House. Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) is circulating a similar letter that has so far gained nearly 50 signatures. Earlier this month, former first lady Nancy Reagan--who has already written politicians in support of embryonic stem cell research--spoke out publicly for the first time, saying, "I just don't see how we can turn our backs on this [research]."

States have also gotten involved. Last week New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey inaugurated a new stem cell research institute for which he has requested $6.5 million, calling his state "the first ... in the nation to devote public funds to stem cell research." And in California (Science, 16 January, p. 293), activists have amassed nearly twice the 600,000 signatures needed to put a $3 billion bond issue for stem cell research on the November ballot. The state is currently validating the signatures.