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Thompson: Stem cell lines 'viable for research'

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson refuted some scientists' concerns about the viability for research of the 60 stem cell lines President George W. Bush said would be open for federally funded research.

"Are they adequate?" Thompson said at a Washington news conference. "The answer is a resounding 'yes.' They are diverse, robust and viable for research."

The cell lines -- made up of cells whose initial embryos have already been destroyed -- will make for "effective and productive research," he said.

Watch President Bush's speech on federal funding for stem cell research (Part 1) (August 9)

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Watch President Bush's speech on federal funding for stem cell research (Part 2) (August 9)

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What President Bush's decision means

Bush will allow federal funding for research on 60 lines of embryonic stem cells. These lines of cells have the ability to regenerate themselves indefinitely but not all have been approved by the National Institutes of Health, which sets federal standards for research.

Embryonic stem cells have the potential to turn into any other kind of cell in the body, and have been looked to as possible treatments for Alzheimer's disease and Type I diabetes.

Embryonic stem cells have the potential to turn into any other kind of cell in the body. Bush's long-awaited and debated decision, announced Thursday evening, allows funding for research using an existing 60 lines of stem cells, but not research using cells obtained from surplus embryos produced in fertility clinics or embryos created specifically for scientific purposes.

Thompson said that Bush had made a "courageous" decision to allow the research to go forward.

Earlier, Thompson told CNN that the federal government would set up a registry for the available stem cell lines.

"All entities have agreed to cooperate with registering the lines," Thompson said. "We assume everyone is going to cooperate, but we don't have a contract yet."

Thompson said officials at his department and within the National Institutes of Health had identified the 60 lines of cells from around the world, and believed that there might be more lines as yet unidentified.

Thompson acknowledged the surprise even some scientists had over the number of cell lines available but said the very private nature of research currently being conducted meant that the information was not widely known.

Scientific reaction mixed

But even with 60 viable stem cell lines, some scientists criticized Bush's decision, saying it didn't allow researchers enough creative leeway, scientific opportunity or genetic diversity.

"The scientists are operating with at least one hand tied behind their backs by this," said Dr. Lee Witters, a professor of medicine and biochemistry at Dartmouth College. "When I walk into my lab to do an experiment, I like to be able to try all the angles, and it's very tough to proceed if you know you can do only a certain kind of experiment."

But the president of the American Society for Cell Biology, while expressing hope more stem cell lines will be made available, applauded Bush's decision overall.

"The president's decision gives renewed hope to nearly 100 million Americans who suffer from some of the most debilitating illnesses," said ASCB president and University of Chicago biologist Dr. Elaine Fuchs. "Hopefully, it will mean that research will be conducted based on scientific purpose and not company profit."

Celebrities, conservatives weigh in

Several high-profile celebrities and politicians -- actors Mary Tyler Moore and Christopher Reeve and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, among them -- came out quickly in support of the president's decision. But some of the more conservative elements of his constituency were not pleased.

Poll suggests public largely backs Bush's decision.  

At a news conference Friday morning, representatives of several pro-life organizations expressed their opposition to Bush's decision.

Ken Connor, president of the conservative think tank, the Family Research Council, compared stem cell research with the cruel experiments conducted by the Nazi "Angel of Death," Dr. Josef Mengele, on doomed prisoners at the concentration camp Auschwitz.

"Killing human embryos for research is wrong in every instance," Connor said. "The president is leading our country deeper into the moral morass."

Other speakers, including Bay Buchanan, sister of former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, said that stem cell research amounted to killing defenseless human beings and worried that allowing such research under any circumstances would open the door to more radical research.

Buchanan said Bush's comments indicating a pro-life position were "extraordinarily heartwarming," but she still questioned the decision.

"If it is wrong to kill," she said, "why did he not say he will ban all federal funds?"

Poll shows public support

But half of the Americans surveyed in a CNN/USA Today poll, conducted by the Gallup Organization immediately following Bush's speech, disagreed with the pro-life groups' position.

Fifty percent of those surveyed said they approved of Bush's decision. Another quarter disapproved, and the final 25 percent had no opinion.

Of those who said they disapproved, 7 percent said Bush's limits were too strict.

And 55 percent of the respondents to the poll said they would support use of "extra" embryos that were going to be destroyed.

Those who watched Bush's speech approved of the decision in greater numbers, 73 percent for viewers and 40 percent for nonviewers, and Republicans favored the decision in greater numbers than Democrats or Independents, who were the least supportive of the decision.

The public was soundly opposed to research on stem cells created specifically for that purpose, however, by a 66 percent to 26 percent margin.

• Stem Cells: A Primer, National Institutes of Health, May 2000
• University of Pennsylvania Bioethics
• The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics
• Family Research Council

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