Washington Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson acknowledged Wednesday that little more than one-third of the embryonic stem cell lines that President Bush had said were available to federally funded scientists are fully developed and currently adequate for research.
Facing senators skeptical of Bush's plan to limit government-funded research to existing embryonic stem-cell lines and no more, Thompson said he believed many of the 64 cell colonies the Bush administration has said were available would eventually become viable for research, but he did not know for sure. Thompson said those lines were in varying stages of development.
Still, Thompson said, even if those lines did not turn out to be usable, the 24 or 25 established lines were enough to conduct basic research into an area that scientists believe holds great promise for the treatment of a number of ailments such as diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases and spinal cord injuries.
"We believe the number is sufficient," Thompson told the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
He also announced that the National Institutes of Health had reached an agreement with the University of Wisconsin foundation that holds the patent on embryonic stem cells that would allow scientists to access the university's five stem-cell lines.
Thompson said the administration hoped the agreement, which allows NIH to retain ownership of any intellectual property that might arise from its research using the cells, would serve as a model for other stem-cell owners.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said the "restrictive conditions" Bush placed on the research could "delay development of cures for dread diseases for many years at the cost of countless lives and immeasurable suffering."
Kennedy said he was surprised to hear Thompson acknowledge there were only two dozen cell lines available now, a fact that Kennedy said was "certainly in conflict with the words of the president."
But Kennedy, who chaired Wednesday's hearing, said he needed more information about the quality and availability of the existing cell lines before he would decide whether to push for legislation that would allow a wider range of research.
"Apparently, many of the lines cited are not viable or robust or usable," Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said. He argued that Bush had not been given accurate information by NIH, which identified the 64 lines after a worldwide phone survey.