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HHS Secretary Thompson Speaks Out on Stem Cell Research

Aired August 10, 2001 - 14:01   ET


JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: President Bush's plan for stem cell research is drawing mixed reactions today. While some say it's a reasonable compromise, others say it goes too far, and still others say it doesn't go far enough. Sometimes it's tough to win.

Mr. Bush says the government should fund embryonic stem cell research, but only on cell lines from embryos that have already been destroyed. The Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson is now speaking before reporters up at Washington at the National Institutes of Health. Let's hear from him now.

TOMMY THOMPSON, SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES: ... thank you very much to Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

And Dr. Audrey Penn, who is the acting director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

And Dr. Lana Skirboll, who is the associate director for science policy and has done such a wonderful job on this.

I want to thank all of you for coming, because I know it's short notice and I know there are lots of questions since the president made the announcement last evening. And so I'm very pleased that you're all here.

And I thought the best way for us to answer a lot of questions was to have a large press conference and invite you all up here so you could talk to me as well as to a lot of the scientists in regards to the announcement the president made.

There's nothing easy about this issue, and that can't be understated enough. The president studied the issue of stem cell research very extensively. He's seeking input from all sides and he reached out to all people concerned about this very complex and very delicate issue.

This included working closely with the leading scientific experts in the country, including those at the National Institutes of Health who provided myself and the president valuable scientific information on this very complex subject.

The president used this information to develop, I believe, a very compassionate solution to the stem cell issue by allowing research to continue on existing stem cell lines. The president's decision balances our deepest respect for life with also our highest hopes for alleviating human suffering.

But the decision has spawned the questions of whether the existing stem cell lines are adequate to conduct effective research. The answer, ladies and gentlemen, is a resounding yes.

The National Institutes of Health and the Department of Health and Human Services have identified 60 existing embryonic stem cell lines that meet the president's criteria. The more than 60 stem cell lines are diverse, they're robust and they're viable for research. And they spread out over five countries and three continents. And we have great confidence that these existing lines will provide for very effective and productive research.

Our confidence comes from the insight and work of the leading stem cell experts at the National Institutes of Health, researchers who are among the preeminent scientists in this field. And a lot of you have heard me say this many times, that we're very blessed in this country by having the best scientists, doctors and researchers in the world working for us in this department.

And two of them that are really very much involved in this have been Dr. Lana Skirboll and Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, as well as the other individuals on the panel. And they're going to be able to answer more of your questions in just a moment.

There's no doubt the news of the more than 60 stem cell lines surprised some, including those in the scientific community. But you need to understand, no one had ever done a formal, aggressive count until I asked NIH to do so a few weeks ago. And as recently as last night, NIH again verified its research into the number of lines available that meet the criteria. After the president spoke last night, Dr. Lana Skirboll came up here and she called and verified once again through her office the 60 stem cell lines.

Research with embryonic stem cells is such a new endeavor that laboratories, companies and researchers were keeping their work guarded, as you can understand. A lot of the research was going on behind closed doors and was being closely protected for proprietary reasons. And once NIH began the formal determination on the number of stem cell lines, they found that these researchers would be very cooperative; very cooperative in terms of sharing information about the existing stem cell lines that they have and their continuing that cooperation today, as we discuss how these stem cell lines will be able to be made accessible to the researchers that will need to us them for their research projects.

And just so you'll know, we still have some very strong proprietary and patent issues to work through, but we have great confidence that they can be addressed. And we have -- all of us up here have used our contacts to talk to people. I was on the telephone last night with WARF, which is the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, in regard to their patents, and their pledge of cooperation was very heartening to me. The researchers and companies we have been talking to have been very cooperative and open to what we're trying to accomplish. We don't expect the number of existing stem cell lines available for research to decline. The number, we believe, will grow as we learn of more lines that existed as of August 9.

What's important is that now that the president has made his decision, we can go forward. And that's exactly what we're doing at the Department of Health and Human Services. We've already begun immediately today the process of creating the registry of existing stem cell lines. In fact, Dr. Ruth Kirschstein has already announced the individual doctor that's going to be leading setting up the registry. And so we've already started working on this, and we'll be up and running very shortly.

NIH also is working through how these lines can be mutually shared within the research community. Now, we're going to begin setting up a process by which researchers can seek grants to fund research on these lines. We don't expect any grants to be made until next calendar year at the earliest, but we expect those grants to be given out very quickly after the first of the next calendar year.

We don't have all the answers for you yet on how these procedures are all going to work, but we've already started working on them. We don't believe that any of them will be insurmountable impediments to research with the existing stem cell lines. We're receiving solid public support for the president's decision, and I believe that support will only grow stronger as the American people, the researchers and the various groups better understand the impact of that decision. People appreciate how deliberative and careful President Bush was in reaching this solution, and they want to know more.

I also want to tell you that I met with several of the various groups today at the department that represent various action organizations and the citizens groups. And there were a lot of questions asked. But after they left, they were pretty much unanimous in support of the direction we're going.

Make no mistake: This is a bold step forward. The president has courageously and compassionately allowed for embryonic stem cell research to take place with federal funds, and the circumstances he has created unequivocally provide for sound and very effective scientific research to occur.

We are going to be able to pursue the potential of stem cell research, both embryonic and adult, to see what solutions they provide to tackle some of the most devastating diseases affecting America. And what really has bothered me throughout this whole debate is that there's never really been a comparison of the different kinds of stem cells, from embryonic to adult, fat, to placenta, and now we are going to be able to make that comparison. So, we will have the knowledge base to determine which stem cells really are the best and which stem cells can be adapted to come up with the cures hopefully of some of these insidious diseases. The president did, ladies and gentlemen, the right thing. And I am very pleased of that decision and the fact that the American people will benefit from his decisive leadership on this issue.

Before we open up for questions, I would like Dr. Lana Skirboll also to make a presentation, because she has worked so hard on this subject and everything I've asked her to do, she's been absolutely exceptional. And I would like to at this time introduce my friend Dr. Lana Skirboll.

DR. LANA SKIRBOLL, NIH: Yeah, the first thing we're going to do with stem cells is long bone growth.


SKIRBOLL: This is a wonderful day for research. It's a wonderful day for basic research. It's a wonderful day for I think on the road to new treatments for some of the nation's most devastating diseases. We hope so.

It is at the core of the philosophy of NIH that we get researchers access to research tools that they're able to do the research, get federal funding and that that research is translated out to the public, to the private sector, for the development of new treatments. And we think this is day one for our role in human embryonic stem cell research.

I don't have to tell much of you -- many of you. You could probably tell me about the many diseases and devastating disorders which we -- this is likely to play a role in. But we will never get there unless we get the ball rolling. So, the whole purpose here today -- and we are pleased that the president has allowed us to proceed with federal funding, and there are going to be more researchers ever.

We, of course, are a little prejudiced. We believe the best and the brightest will be now coming to this arena of research, and we are hoping in the years to come forward we will be here in this room doing press conferences on new findings out of embryonic stem cell research.

So, we will be happy to take any questions you have. I want to say that the president...

CHEN: You're listening to someone from the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Lana Skirboll, backing Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, speaking in the wake of President Bush's decision regarding embryonic stem cell research.

Bush administration seems to be making something of a full court press today, both to try to explain, as we heard from the president's spokesman Karen Hughes a little bit earlier, the decision-making and how Mr. Bush reached his decision, as well now hearing from the HHS Secretary Mr. Thompson about the administration's understanding of the current status of embryonic stem cell research and what should be done next in the view of the Bush administration. Again, getting the latest statement from up there in Washington. CNN is continuing to follow developments on all of this. Now to Donna.

DONNA KELLEY, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Joie, and joining us is Elizabeth Cohen who has seen the last couple of days, because she has been helping us understand about this stem cell research, and so now the president has made his decision and announced it. And let's go back and let's just help people understand what is a stem cell line? Since the federal funding now is for existing stem cell lines only.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right, the 60 or so existing stem cell lines only.

Well, here's how to make a stem cell. Don't try this at home -- and if you do, you can't use federal funding. But stem cell comes from an embryo. So what researchers did is they took embryos that were sitting in fertility labs that parents didn't want, they got permission. Inside an embryo, there's stem cells. They scooped them out, and they reproduced them. And once they start reproducing, they can go on forever. You can get zillions and zillions of them.

Actually, you can see it here. From one -- that's one little flask there on the side of stem cells, and once they get going, it goes on and on and on. But all of those blue flasks that you see -- and it goes into millions -- those are all one stem cell lines, because they all started with one embryo.

So, that's exactly what a stem cell line is. You take an embryo, you take the stem cells out, and you make them replicate for as long as you want -- years, actually, some people.

KELLEY: And one of the questions I wanted to ask you was whether or not they verified that there were, in fact, they were 60 or even more than 60, and Tommy Thompson addressed that just now.

COHEN: Right, exactly. And last week, I was actually talking to an NIH researcher who was involved in the counting, and this was a week ago today, and he says, "well, we think there are more than 20, maybe somewhere between 50 and 100, we are really not sure." And they continued to count since last week, and they have come up with this number 60. Thompson earlier said it's between 60 and 69.

I think it's probably safe to say that it's not completely known, because as he mentioned, these stem cell lines are on three different continents, they are in private companies, so they certainly don't have to reveal anything. I think in some way, the exact number is not so crucial, whether it's 50 or 70 or whatever. It's still enough to make some people mad, because you had to destroy embryos to get them, and then to make scientists not happy because it's not as many as they would have liked.

KELLEY: And the president, though, in making his decision, said that these were ones where the life and death decision had already been made and that's why he was allowing it to go on, these existing stem cell lines. COHEN: Right, exactly. And so, that has made some people happy and some people not very happy. Again, these are all made out of embryos, so if you believe that an embryo is a human life -- some people would say, you know what, that doesn't make any sense. So what if somebody already killed them? They shouldn't have been killed, and we shouldn't benefit from the research. That's how some people would feel.

Other people don't consider an embryo that's sitting in a lab to be human life. But the bottom line is is that those 60 have already been made sometime between the fall of '98 and yesterday. If they were already made, then you can use them if you are going to use federal funding. If they haven't already been made, if they were made from today here on, you can't use federal funding.

KELLEY: And he was talking about how when the grants are coming, he said not everything is worked out, but they're working on it, and the cooperation and the sharing that they're going to try and put together, have you heard anything at all about how they might go about that process? This is all just, you know, being -- tried to be worked out, so we may not know yet.

COHEN: Exactly. Right, it's a work in progress. And I think as a White House correspondent told me, it's really -- it's got to go through a lot of lawyers. I think a lot of lawyers are going to be hard at work. These are -- these stem cell lines that are sitting, the 60 that are sitting in private companies now -- private money went to making them, and so those companies now have to decide, are they going to charge other researchers for using them? Are they just going to make them public? If they are going to charge, how much?

And if I'm a private company and I've spent a lot of money making these cell lines, and I say to Donna, "yeah, here, you go ahead, you do some research on mine and you can use federal funds." If Donna comes up with the cure to cancer, do I make money off of that? Who makes money? Does NIH make money? How does that work? I mean, there are so many questions, and I don't think they have come up with all of those answers yet. I mean, it's so early. He just made the decision Wednesday afternoon.

KELLEY: They are working on it.

OK, Elizabeth Cohen, thanks very much as usual -- Joie.

CHEN: Well, as Elizabeth reported, it's certainly the issue that arouses great controversy, polarization, very passionate views on the subject of embryonic stem cell research, and so you can certainly understand that there has already been an attempt to gauge public opinion over all this. CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider joins us now with a view on that -- Bill.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Joie, we have gauged public opinion. Just last night in the immediate aftermath of the presidential remarks, we asked people around the country how they responded to the president's decision. And the answer was positive, I would say cautiously positive. Exactly half of the people in the United States say that they support President Bush's decision on stem cell research. A quarter say they disapprove, and most of those who disapprove say they disapprove because they believe his limitations were not strict enough, and a quarter of the public were unsure.

Now, we did find that only a third of the public actually watched the speech, and those who watched the speech were even more favorable to the president's decision, almost three quarters of them supported it. So, the president appears to have been convincing.

You know, Joie, initially we had found for weeks now that most Americans favored the idea of stem cell research, even though they had moral qualms, they thought it was medically necessary. Now the president has agreed to support it in a very limited way, and the public is saying very carefully, they're saying OK, that sounds good.

But we are going to wait until this weekend to get a further public reaction as they hear what scientists and religious leaders have to say.

CHEN: Our senior political analyst Bill Schneider joining us from Los Angeles today with the view of the nation's populace on all of this. Thanks, Bill.




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