5 Questions

Irving Weissman on embryonic stem cell research

Irving Weissman

Few policies governing scientific research have been as widely debated and criticized by the scientific community as President George W. Bush’s Aug. 9, 2001, announcement about embryonic stem cells. The president restricted the use of federal funds to existing stem cell lines and prohibited the use of those funds to derive new stem cells from existing embryos. California is looking for ways to fund a broader range of embryonic stem cell work through a November ballot measure that would fund the research with $3 billion in state bonds. We asked Irv Weissman, MD, director of Stanford’s Institute for Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine, to assess the current climate.

How has President Bush’s 2001 decision affected embryonic stem cell research in the United States?

Weissman: First, no new stem cell lines can be made with U.S. government funding, no research to produce human genetic disease-specific or transplantable human stem cell lines can be done using U.S. government funding and very few of our best and brightest will enter a field that the U.S. government opposes and may criminalize. In order to keep up in this field, we must follow research from labs funded by private organizations like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute or from other countries.

A Reagan speaking at a Democratic convention? Has the support of Nancy and Ron Reagan Jr. altered the debate?

Weissman: The significance of the Reagans entering the debate is not one of partisanship – Republican Senators Hatch, Specter and Stevens are among the staunchest advocates for this research. But the Reagans have put a human face on the debate and have reminded us that blocking medical research for ideological – not safety or scientific or medical – reasons is simply not the way to do research intended to understand and treat the diseases that affect our families and theirs. It is the Reagans’ stature that brings the debate to the public eye.

Some Californians oppose the stem cell ballot proposition because the state’s economy is still not sound. Putting economics aside, what’s the main reason to support the initiative?

Weissman: The primary reason is to produce human stem cell lines from patients with genetic diseases so that biomedical researchers can understand and treat the diseases to which they’ve devoted their careers. We also need to develop transplantable cells of any tissue from a donor in order to regenerate lost tissues and organs for that donor. This research could eventually lead to treatments for what are now chronic, debilitating and often fatal diseases.

Critics argue that stem cell advocates are overselling the promise of the research and that the near-term ability to treat grave illnesses won’t live up to the hype. Are you concerned that advocates are over-reaching?

Weissman: Of course I’m concerned, and I have spent much effort to try to bring real expectations for the outcomes. What most critics ignore is that this nation has already committed itself to fundamental basic research with very long time lines because that is the surest way to advance medical science and develop treatments and cures. That was true for vaccine development, for the recombinant DNA revolution that treats over 100,000 Americans each year and certainly will be true for stem cell research.

You recently told a U.S. Senate subcommittee that those “who participate in the banning or enforced delays of biomedical research that could lead to the saving of lives and the amelioration of suffering are directly and morally responsible for the lives made worse or lost.” Is that too harsh?

Weissman: In my view, it is entirely accurate. Remember, those who are trying to ban and criminalize this research are doing so for mainly ideological or religious reasons, and in doing so are politicizing medical research in the United States for the first time. One lesson we learned from the Nuremberg trials after World War II is that individuals are responsible for their own actions. I am merely reminding those who would ban and criminalize this research that they assume responsibility for their actions; in this case, their actions will surely lead to failure to end diseases, disabilities and deaths.