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Defusing stem cells

WASHINGTON - A week before the 2000 presidential election, former NIH Director Harold Varmus publicly endorsed Al Gore, warning that if elected, George W. Bush would shut down federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, a step that he said could delay or prevent a medical revolution that would develop cures for numerous debilitating diseases.

As president, Bush's first high profile acts included making pro-life cabinet appointments and cutting U.S. support for international family planning projects that advocate abortion, lending credence to Varmus's prediction. And as Bush's first month in office was closing, the president declared to reporters that he is against federal funding of research on fetal tissue or stem cells derived from induced abortions.

The comments suggested that Bush is looking for a way to defuse the conflict between the morals of abortion and the urgency of creating cures for the sick and disabled. As framed by his comments, the debate may come down to an argument over what constitutes an adequate supply of research material, and how such policy decisions will affect the speed of research.

In any case, on a political timeline, the stem cell issue is down to a short fuse, as the NIH is set to begin implementing the Clinton-era plans for funding embryonic stem cell research next month.

The political setup

A move by Bush to block federal funding of the research would terminate an initiative that was one of Varmus' top priorities for the last year of his tenure at NIH. Shortly after John Gearhart of Johns Hopkins University and James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin announced in 1998 that they had discovered how to coax stem cells from human embryos and culture them, Varmus began working on an equally daunting public policy challenge: eluding congressional prohibitions on federal funding of embryo research so NIH-supported researchers could have access to the protean cells.

Varmus and senior NIH scientists quickly convinced President Bill Clinton, Gore and influential members of Congress from both parties that stem cell research could revolutionize medicine, that aborted fetuses and spare embryos created at fertility clinics are the only practical source of the cells, and that the tremendous benefits of the research outweighed any moral or ethical concerns about these sources.

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