WASHINGTON — During his first tour of the National Institutes of Health, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said Wednesday that the administration would decide by summer whether to allow controversial stem cell research to proceed.
Stem cells are the body's master cells, from which organs and all types of body tissues are formed, and researchers believe they hold great promise in the treatment, even cure, of many diseases. While Congress explicitly forbids research using embryos, the law does not mention stem cells, and the most dynamic stem cells come from embryos.
Thompson, who is an abortion foe, describes himself, however, as "passionate about research." He vowed Wednesday that the administration's decision on stem cell research would be based on legal grounds, rather than personal philosophy about abortion.
Thompson's comments came after he spent nearly three hours at NIH, the one government agency that emerges a clear winner in the Bush budget process, with a nearly $2.8-billion increase, its biggest in history.
President Bush repeatedly has pledged to complete former President Clinton's goal of doubling the NIH budget to $27.3 billion by 2003.
His proposed 13.6% increase for the next fiscal year keeps this promise on track; in 1998, the NIH budget was $13.7 billion and incrementally has increased every year since to its fiscal 2001 level of $20.3 billion.
Thompson extolled the work of NIH, long regarded as the world's premier biomedical facility, stressing that "President Bush and I certainly understand [its] importance."
Moreover, the administration will not tell NIH how to spend the dollars, he said, adding, however, to laughter that he personally hopes they give hearing experts "a good chunk of money [since] I've lost the hearing in my right ear."
Meeting briefly with reporters after touring several of the 26 institutes and offices--including its transplantation, cancer and AIDS clinics--Thompson said he has given the green light for researchers to apply to NIH for the funding of stem cell research. The deadline for these applications is March 15.
The Bush administration has been under tremendous pressure from the scientific community to fund the research; recently, 80 Nobel laureates signed a letter to Bush urging him to allow the work to continue.
Bush in the past has expressed strong opposition to stem cell research because the cells most often are taken from embryos that are destroyed.
The research has been heatedly opposed by anti-abortion activists.
While Thompson counts himself as an abortion foe, he has in the past praised stem cell research--and with regional pride. Researchers in his home state of Wisconsin, where Thompson served as governor until joining the Bush administration, were among the first to isolate and grow stem cell lines.
Thompson said that NIH's lawyers interpreted the law as allowing funding when stem cells are obtained from embryos destroyed independent of research, "but this has been questioned by other lawyers."
Asked whether the administration's recommendation would be based on a legal review of the law, rather than personal philosophy on abortion, Thompson replied: "Yes."
In other far-ranging comments about NIH, Thompson said he hoped to find new ways to attract talented young scientists to the agency and retain them, and promised to try to accelerate the search for a new NIH director. The post has been vacant since the departure of Dr. Harold Varmus in 1999.
"We've got some great names [as candidates], and we are in the process of interviewing them," he said. But "the process in Washington does not move rapidly. It is amazing. Everything takes a long period of time. Hopefully, we can get through the red tape."
He added: "When I was a mere governor, I could wake up with a great idea and have somebody carry it out that day. I come to Washington, get a great idea--and I have to go to OMB," a reference to the Office of Management and Budget, which must clear most initiatives.
Thompson emphasized that funding decisions at NIH would be left to the scientists, but added that it was reasonable to assume "the emphasis will be on cancer, AIDS, diabetes--and, hopefully, hearing loss."