The Corner

Potential Problems

I wasn’t sure what to make of Rick Weiss’s report in the Washington Post about a new study calling Bush’s stem-cell policy into question. “All of the human embryonic stem cells available to federally funded scientists under President Bush’s three-year-old research policy share a previously unrecognized trait that fosters rejection by the immune systems, diminishing their potential as medical treatments, new research indicates,” writes Weiss.

I asked a close observer of the debate, who supports the president’s policy, what he made of it.

His response: “It’s very hard to say, since the study has not been published, and the results have quickly been rushed out before the election. The article didn’t give us enough to go on, and no one has seen the study itself.

“A few points, though, about what the article did say. It said: ‘The first study, led by Fred Gage of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., and Ajit Varki of the University of California at San Diego, focused on a peculiar aspect of the federally approved cell lines: Unlike colonies being derived using newer techniques, all the Bush-approved colonies were initially cultivated in laboratory dishes that also contained mouse cells.’

“This is not correct. Sixteen lines approved for funding under the president’s policy were not developed with mouse feeder cells. They have not been developed past the earliest stages at all, but have been frozen, awaiting the development of a reliable technique that does not rely on mouse cells. Moreover, the vast majority of ESC lines developed after the August 9th cutoff have also been developed with mouse feeder cells (including the recently publicized Harvard cells, and most others) and so are subject to the same findings, if the study in question is correct. As the article does note, the FDA has in the past approved cell products (not stem cell products, but others) that have been developed with mouse feeder cells, and these have been used successfully, so it’s not clear to me what the study is suggesting, but again, I haven’t seen the study.

“The second study, as the article itself put it, is still ongoing. This is clearly just a rush to publicize before the election–not exactly standard scientific practice. Hard to judge, therefore, but what little details are offered here don’t, in themselves, quite add up.”

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.