Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Zach Hall on Monday Morning at the White House

Zach Hall, the first president of the California stem cell agency and now a director of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, attended the ceremonies at the White House on Monday. Here is his account of the event and some of its implications. Our thanks to Hall (pictured at left) for providing the article.

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On a soft spring morning, a distinguished and festive group gathered at the East Entrance to the White House. It was a gathering of the tribe of embryonic stem cell research supporters – scientists, Washington officials, patients, and patient advocates, many of whom had been working for years for the day when the Presidential restrictions on stem cell research would be lifted. As we waited, we greeted colleagues, shared our excitement about the event, and began the first round of picture-taking. California was well-represented, with stem cell scientists Irv Weissman and Renee Reijo-Pera from Stanford; Bob Klein, Chairman of CIRM and author of Proposition 71; and CEO Tom Okarma from Geron. Leading stem cell scientists Jamie Thomson from Wisconsin, Shinya Yamanaka from the Gladstone Institute and Japan, John Gearhart from Pennsylvania and George Daley from Harvard were there, as were several Nobel Prize winners (Mike Bishop from UCSF, Steven Chu, the new Secretary of Energy, Robert Horvitz, Eric Kandel, Harold Varmus, Peter Agre) and other scientific notables (Bruce Alberts, Eric Lander, Francis Collins). Among the California patient advocates were long-time stem cell advocates, Roman Reed and his parents, Gloria and Don, and Katie Hood of the Michael J. Fox Foundation. A number of those present (Alta Charo, Clive Svenson, John Wagner, Janet Rowland) are well-known to CIRM as members of its Working Groups.

After passing through security, we entered the White House and, after a brief wait, streamed into the East Room where we were joined by a Congressional delegation including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senator Diane Feinstein and Representative Henry Waxman from California, Senators Tom Harkin and Orrin Hatch, and Representatives Mike Castle and Diana DeGette. One entire wall was packed with TV cameramen, journalists and photographers, whose presence was made evident throughout the event by the constant chorus of camera clicks.

The ceremony began with the entry of seven distinguished scientists, Nobelists and others, who would stand behind President Obama as he signed the Executive Order for embryonic stem cell research and the Memorandum on scientific integrity, their presence a clear signal of the importance of science to his administration.

The President entered, bounding onto the stage to a prolonged standing ovation. His first words were: “Well, I’m excited, too.” His speech was firm, clear and thoughtful, with the eloquence that we have come to expect from him. He was enthusiastic, but appropriately cautious about the promise of stem cell research, recognizing that “there is no finish line in the work of science.” He acknowledged and expressed respect for those who oppose the research, but cited the strong majority of Americans who believe the research should go forward. President Obama then adroitly tied the reversal of the presidential restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research to his effort to restore scientific integrity to government, to listen to scientists even when (“especially when,” as he added) it is inconvenient, and to “make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.” Needless to say, these words were warmly received by those present. The President ended with a tribute to Christopher and Dana Reeve and to the many people who have worked tirelessly on behalf of embryonic stem cell research.

The President then moved to the desk and signed the documents using multiple pens, as is the custom. “I’ve learned to extend my signature,” he said. After shaking the hands of those near the front (I was delighted to be one of them), the President left. Still excited and savoring the moment, the group lingered, reluctant to leave, until White House attendants pointed us to the door.

The President’s remarks, as well as the stem cell document itself, contained several small surprises. The general expectation among the stem cell community was that the Executive Order would permit federal funding of research on stem cell lines as long as they were made from surplus IVF embryos using money from private or state sources. The Executive Order, however, makes no specific mention of what can and cannot be funded, but directs the NIH to provide guidance on that point within 120 days, in light of “widely recognized guidelines.” This leaves open the possibility that the NIH could fund research on embryonic stem cell lines made by other means, including somatic cell nuclear transfer, as long as federal money was not used to make the lines. The use of federal funds to actually make stem cell lines is, in any case, illegal under the Dickey-Wicker amendment which prohibits any research that results in harm or destruction of a human embryo.

The second issue concerns whether or not legislation is desirable. The White House had indicated previously that this was a matter for the Congress to decide, but in his speech he suggested that his former colleagues “still have plenty of work to do.” Presumably this is encouragement to pass a new version of the Castle-DeGette bill, which allows federal funding for new lines made from IVF embryos, but might be taken as a reference to the Dickey-Wicker amendment. A legislative battle over Dickey-Wicker would be much more difficult and more polarizing than a revised Castle-DeGette bill.

In the end, one can only admire the President’s eagerness to engage the scientific community in solving the many problems that the nation faces, the use of stem cells among them. To be there as a scientist, among so many distinguished colleagues and supporters of biomedical research, and to see the President demonstrate his commitment to our shared enterprise, both in word and deed, was truly inspiring. I felt privileged to be at the White House on this historic occasion. Sphere: Related Content

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