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Bush, NIH Nominee Share Similar Views on Stem Cell Research - 2002-03-27

No sooner had President George Bush named the head of the U.S. government's premier health research center than clamoring was heard from those interested in stem cell research.

Observers were not surprised by President Bush's nomination Tuesday of Algerian born Elias Zerhouni to head the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Zerhouni is a radiologist by training and an administrator at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. As the president suggested during his speech announcing Dr. Zerhouni's selection, the two men share similar outlooks on stem cell research.

"Dr. Zerhouni shares my view that human life is precious and should not be exploited or destroyed for the benefit of others," he said. "And he shares my view that the promise of ethically conducted medical research is limitless. As director of the NIH, Dr. Zerhouni will be at the forefront of our efforts to promote biomedical research with a careful regard for the bounds of biomedical ethics."

Stem cells are unassigned cells. Scientists are trying to figure out ways to capture and grow them in great numbers, and turn them into cells clusters that can replace damaged tissue or treat diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.

The Bush administration's policy on stem cell research allows federal money to be spent on research, but only on about 60 existing embryonic stem cell lines. Scientists make use of these cell lines in ways to try to find treatments or cures for diseases. The White House policy completely bans any human cloning.

"Well, it's certainly a great privilege to head the National Institutes of Health. And I would be hopeful that President Bush's candidate would come to the job with an open mind because in my opinion a requirement for the next NIH director is an open mind and a willingness to learn during his tenure the promise of regenerative medicine," said Sue Markland Day, president of the Bay Area Bioscience Center, a consortium representing about 600 biotech companies on the U.S. West Coast.

As with most political nominees, Elias Zerhouni has reportedly refused to publicly answer questions on his views.

"Dr. Zerhouni has spoken, in a sense, by his actions," said Patrick Delaney, spokesperson for the group American Life League. "We know that the agency that he helped develop does advocate stem cell research that thrives and necessarily requires the direct killing of embryonic persons."

American Life League opposes Dr. Zerhouni's nomination because of his role in establishing a stem cell research institute at Johns Hopkins.

"We would expect that a pro-life administration like President Bush's would appoint - especially to such a sensitive position - a pro-life individual who acknowledges the scientific fact that human life begins at fertilization," he said.

The U.S. Senate must first approve Mr. Zerhouni's nomination before he takes over as head of the $27 billion health agency complex. The head of the Senate Committee charged with vetting the Mr. Zerhouni's nomination embraces his candidacy with an open mind.