NIH nominee cautious on stem-cell issue

Senate confirmation likely soon for Hopkins administrator Zerhouni

May 01, 2002|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Dr. Elias Zerhouni, the Johns Hopkins administrator tapped by President Bush to head the National Institutes of Health, walked a fine line on the subject of embryonic stem-cell research yesterday, telling senators that he believes "disease knows no politics."

At a brief Senate confirmation hearing, Zerhouni, executive vice dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said he applauded as an "important advance" Bush's policy of limiting the federal funding of research on human embryonic stem cells to the several dozen cell lines already in existence.

He said a lot of fundamental research could be conducted on a limited number of cell lines if they are in good condition.

"You can do a lot when you have these lines," he said.

But asked if he would push for federal funding of new stem-cell lines if it became apparent that more were needed for research, he suggested that he would at least present the case for broadening Bush's policy.

"If it becomes evident through this research that there are pathways to develop cures and so on, I'll be the first one to assemble that information, to give experts that information, to provide that in the sense of well-established scientific facts and share that with everyone," Zerhouni said.

The majority of the scientific community supports research on stem cells harvested from human embryos, believing that such building-block cells could lead to life-saving therapies for a host of diseases. But many conservatives oppose such research because it requires the destruction of the embryo, which they consider human life.

Zerhouni, who was lauded by members of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions as an accomplished scientist and skilled administrator, is expected to be confirmed by the full Senate as early as this week.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the health committee, said there was "overwhelming support" for Zerhouni's nomination to head Bethesda-based NIH, the nation's largest biomedical research institution.

Introduced to the panel by Maryland Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, Zerhouni met much praise and only light questioning - even on the politically volatile and ethically sensitive issues that await the next NIH director, such as stem-cell research and therapeutic cloning.

Zerhouni acknowledged that "tensions have always developed between science and society when a scientific discovery challenges deeply held beliefs."

He said the NIH director's role is to "inform the debate by developing and communicating the most objective data."

The NIH director, he said, "should actively promote the necessary research within the policy guidelines laid out by the president, and in strict compliance with all laws passed by Congress."

After the hearing, Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, an anti-abortion conservative, announced his support for a bill that would allow cloning for research or therapeutic purposes.

Zerhouni was not asked about his position on therapeutic cloning at the hearing. Conservatives have said that they were assured by the White House that he supports a measure that bans all forms of cloning.

But Mikulski, who backs legislation allowing therapeutic cloning, said she was nonetheless satisfied with Zerhouni's testimony, noting that he said he would promote whatever policies are enacted by Congress.

"We're not here to see how people feel. We're here to see what they will do," she said. "It's up to us now to pass the legislation that provides the most important framework for research in this area."

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