WisBusiness: NIH chief’s stem cell position lauded

By Brian E. Clark

Statements by National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Elias A. Zerhouni that embryonic stem cell research should be expanded are drawing praise in Madison. Zerhouni’s comments were published in the latest edition of a magazine called Medline Plus.

His views clash with those of President George Bush, Zerhouni’s ultimate boss. Bush has twice vetoed legislation that would expand research on new embryonic lines.

“This is tremendous news,” said Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. “It’s a conclusion that is supported by the scientific evidence. I hope Congress is paying attention.

“The NIH director knows that stem cell research holds tremendous potential for improving health and improving the human condition. The government needs to loosen the apron strings on this because we are falling way behind other countries in this area.”

Still described federal support of $35 million to fund stem cell research “essentially nothing.”

He said funding for researchers in the United Kingdom, South Korea and Malaysia – among other countries – “dwarfs” U.S. support.

In spite of Zerhouni’s position, Still said he does not expect Bush to change his mind before he leaves office in a little more than a year and overturn his 2001 limiting federal funding to 21 stem cell lines.

“However, it is possible members of Congress will take another look as the supporting scientific evidence mounts, ethical questions are answered and the economic impact is better understood. Legislation has passed both houses, it just wasn’t veto-proof.”

Still said stem cell research will also be an issue in the 2008 presidential race, with candidates in both parties supporting greater research.

Beth Donley, who runs a Madison stem cell company called Stemina Biomarker Discovery, also praised Zarhouni.

Because of meager funding for stem cell research, scientists are choosing other areas of study, added Donley. She is former general counsel of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), UW-Madison’s tech transfer arm. She also headed WiCell, WARF’s stem cell subsidiary.

If NIH and other federal agencies’ purse strings were loosened, Donley said researchers – including those at Stemina – might be in line for more grants.