Bush Moving to Bolster Stem Cell Alternatives

By Michael A. Fletcher and David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 20, 2007

President Bush, under increasing pressure to relax his restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, plans to issue an executive order today to encourage government agencies to support research that offers the promise of creating medically useful stem cells without destroying human embryos, according to senior administration officials.

The order, which Bush plans to outline in a speech at the White House today, would require the Department of Health and Human Services to develop guidelines for funding alternative approaches over the next three months.

Bush is to issue his order as he vetoes legislation that would loosen his six-year-old restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. The bill passed by comfortable -- but not veto-proof -- margins in the House and Senate. Bush has opposed research with stem cells derived in a process that destroys human embryos, which he calls immoral.

White House officials acknowledge that the executive order is less a change in policy than "a kick in the pants" for the government to make clear that it is willing to fund promising stem cell research. Recent advances have increased optimism that stem cells with potential for treating diseases or even developing into human organs for transplants can be developed from skin cells, amniotic fluid or even cells salvaged from dead embryos.

The White House sees the emerging research as a way out of a difficult and emotional debate. Shortly after becoming president, Bush banned federal funding of stem cell research that involves the destruction of human embryos, which have long been seen as the most promising source of stem cells. It was a position cheered by many conservative Christians and others who equate embryos with human lives.

Opponents said the ban was slowing the pace of potentially lifesaving research, which is now being pursued with private and some state funding. In addition, opponents said the embryos from which stem cells are derived are slated for destruction regardless of whether they are used in research.

"This disabuses us of this notion that there is this fundamental conflict between science and ethics," Karl Zinsmeister, Bush's top domestic policy adviser, said of the new research.

Scientists can receive federal funding only for work on embryonic stem cells obtained from roughly 20 colonies already in existence when Bush's ban went into effect. In his speech, Bush is expected to express the hope that the recent advances will quickly expand the number of cell colonies compatible with federal funding.

There is some evidence that cells with the capacity to divide and grow into many different tissues exist in the placenta, umbilical cord blood and bone marrow. Winnowing them from other cells and successfully pushing them down a path toward medically useful purposes, however, has been difficult.

Part of the problem is that some of these "adult" stem cells are not as primitive and potent as those extracted from an embryo when it is at the stage of a barely visible ball of cells.

This month, three research teams announced that they were able to coax skin cells from mice to revert into more primitive and potent cells -- the equivalent of going back in time. This raises the possibility that everyone may possess the raw material to make stem cells with the same therapeutic potential as ones from embryos.

Other researchers recently showed they could make healthy mouse stem cells from eggs with severe genetic abnormalities by removing the damaged chromosomes and putting in normal ones. If that could be done with some of the tens of thousands of chromosomally abnormal fertilized eggs routinely discarded by fertility clinics, it might be a source of ethically acceptable embryonic stem cells, some experts believe.

But translating research from lab to clinic, and from animals to humans, requires huge amounts of research. At least some of that work is what Bush apparently now wants to support more vigorously.

"The president supports and encourages stem cell research -- including using embryonic lines -- as long as it does not involve creating, harming or destroying embryos," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto. "That is an ethical line that should not be crossed. "

© 2007 The Washington Post Company