Republicans v. NIH

During the recent House of Representatives debate on embryonic stem-cell research, there were many moments that made you want to wince, but none rivaled a truly ridiculous statement by pro-life Representative Henry Hyde. "I myself am a 992-month-old embryo," Hyde declared, in a speech opposing a bipartisan bill to loosen the president's strict limitations on research funding. Alas, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) would vigorously disagree with Hyde's statement. A medical glossary provided on the agency's very useful website devoted to embryonic stem-cell research defines an embryo as "the developing organism from the time of fertilization until the end of the eighth week of gestation, when it becomes known as a fetus." So although I hate to break it to him, it appears that Hyde hasn't actually been an embryo for going on 990 months now. You'd think someone would have told him.

Hyde's silly statement was, unfortunately, typical of the recent stem-cell debate. In arguing against expanded federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research -- a position that has now become such a loser that 50 Republicans switched sides on the issue, and the House sent a stinging 238 to 194 rebuke to President George W. Bush -- the GOP leadership repeatedly contradicted basic medical information that is conveyed quite prominently by the nation's renowned biomedical research agency. But what Republican leaders like Tom DeLay conspicuously didn't do was provide any reason for us not to trust this taxpayer-supported agency, which members of Congress themselves generously vote to fund each year.

The flouting of NIH's authority occurred most frequently as House Republican leaders sought to make the widely discredited argument that research on "adult" and umbilical cord stem cells can supplant research on embryonic ones. During the May 24 House floor debate, David Weldon, a physician, confidently declared: "[I]f you actually read the medical journals, the promise and the potential appear to be in the ethically acceptable alternatives of adult stem research and cord-blood research."

Now, let's turn to the actual medical authority on this matter. In its stem-cell FAQ, NIH poses this question: "Which research is best to pursue?" Then the agency answers: "Given the enormous promise of stem cells therapies for so many devastating diseases, NIH believes that it is important to simultaneously pursue all lines of research and search for the very best sources of these cells." Moreover, in the very next question, the agency makes the point still more explicit. This time, NIH asks: "Why not use adult stem cells instead of using human embryonic stem cells in research?" and then replies:

Human embryonic stem cells are thought to have much greater developmental
potential than adult stem cells. This means that embryonic stem cells may be
pluripotent -- that is, able to give rise to cells found in all tissues of the embryo except for germ cells rather than being merely multipotent -- restricted to specific subpopulations of cell types, as adult stem cells are thought to be.

It doesn't sound like David Weldon is very accurately reflecting the state of medical knowledge as set forth by the NIH. Of course, perhaps the NIH itself is guilty of providing the nation with misinformation. But if that were the case, you would expect to hear House Republicans like Weldon clamoring to have its funding cut or calling for heads to roll at the agency. On the contrary, Weldon himself sits on the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees -- that's right -- funding for the National Institutes of Health. Strange, no?

Other House Republicans -- also waving their physician credentials -- contradicted the NIH in the recent floor debate on embryonic stem-cell research. Representative Charles Boustany, a heart surgeon, made a similar argument designed to present adult stem cells as better than embryonic ones: "Embryonic stem cells have not produced a single human treatment and have significant limitations. … Adult stem cells have been used to treat 58 human diseases."

Once again, let's turn to the NIH to fact-check Boustany's claim. "Have human embryonic stem cells been used successfully to treat any human diseases yet?" the agency asks. It replies: "Because many academic researchers rely on federal funds to support their laboratories, they are just beginning to learn how to grow and use the cells. Thus, although hESC are thought to offer potential cures and therapies for many devastating diseases, research using them is still in its early stages." Unlike Boustany's selective presentation, the NIH goes on to discuss scientific "limitations" not just for embryonic stem cells but also for adult ones: "Adult stem cells are often present in only minute quantities and can therefore be difficult to isolate and purify. There is also evidence that they may not have the same capacity to multiply as embryonic stem cells do."

Now, all of the information quoted thus far is easily accessed by the public with a few clicks through the NIH's conveniently provided FAQ. It's stunning that House Republicans consider themselves empowered to contradict such information seemingly at will, without bothering to explain to us why this apparently misguided federal agency has nevertheless received generous raises in funding from Congress year after year (a funding trend that has only now begun to level off). Is NIH truly untrustworthy? That's highly doubtful. If there were actually a serious case to be made that NIH has been radically distorting biomedical information to suppress the superiority of adult stem cells, there would be an incredible clamor to do something about the agency's behavior. But Republicans don't have the guts to make that case, because they know that any serious inquiry will vindicate NIH.

However, House Republicans know what they can generally get away with: standing up on the floor and making politicized scientific statements in direct contradiction with the views of the federal medical agency that they themselves vote to fund. It's easy to do, and usually no one bothers to check them on the matter. Usually.

Chris Mooney is a Prospect senior correspondent whose TAP Online column appears each week. His first book, The Republican War on Science, will be published in September by Basic Books. His daily blog and other writings can be found at www.chriscmooney.com.

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