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Admiral John O. Agwunobi
Assistant Secretary for Health
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
July 20, 2006

Dr. John Agwunobi
Good afternoon. I am Dr. John Agwunobi and I am the Assistant Secretary for Health. It is my pleasure to be with you today to discuss the President's policy on stem cell research.

Harrison, from Germantown, MD writes:
What are the issues concerning stem cell research both for and against? How does stem cell research work?

Dr. John Agwunobi
Thank you for your question. This is a good place to start to cover the basic facts.

Stem cells are special cells that can grow in a lab and develop into other various types of tissue and organ cells of the human body. It is because of this unique ability that researchers believe they may be helpful to better understand human biology and to potentially treat or cure diseases.

Some stem cells are derived from children, adults, umbilical cords, and placentas without hurting or harming the donors. These stem cells have already been used in research and indeed the treatment of over 60 different diseases and conditions.

Other stem cells are derived from living human embryos in a technique that requires the destruction of the embryo. Research using these embryonic stem cells has not yet produced any treatments or cures to date, but some researchers believe that potential exists with further study. Since this process requires the destruction of living embryos, it has been very controversial.

The controversy has generally focused on the role of the federal government in embryonic stem cell research. Beginning in 1995, Congress prohibited federal funding of research that destroyed human embryos, but on August 9, 2001, President Bush announced a policy that allows federal funding of research on those embryonic stem cells lines created prior to that date. This policy achieves the balance of allowing science to proceed within ethical boundaries. It is a policy that supports and funds this promising field while assuring that the federal government doesn't encourage or promote the destruction of living embryos.

John, from West Point, New York writes:
Why is it that our President saw it neccesary to use veto power in order to stop using stem cell research. I my opinion stem cell research is giving hope to people who were told they would never be able to walk again, imagine if Steven Hawkings could walk and conduct his experiments and research first hand. This decision definatly warrets an explinataion.

Dr. John Agwunobi
Thanks for the chance to clear this up, John. In my work around the country, I am surprised by how many people incorrectly believe that the President opposes stem cell research, or that his veto today stops stem cell research.

The fact is that President Bush believes in advancing this research and is the first ever to provide federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Such funding was otherwise prohibited since 1995. On August 9, 2001, the President announced his policy to allow federal support for embryonic stem cell research using those embryonic stem cell lines that already existed at that time, ensuring that taxpayer funding would not be used for the further destruction of embryos.

Since that time, federal funding for embryonic stem cell research has grown each year. Over $800 million has been directed to date to different kinds of human stem cell research, including over $90 million for embryonic stem cell research since 2002. It is also worth noting that the President's policy applies only to federal funding. Other stem cell research supported by private and public institutions continues to grow.

The President chose to veto H.R. 810 because it would have directed taxpayer dollars to support the destruction of embryos. The President believes we can and should continue to pursue the promise of stem cell research without crossing that line.

Jared, from New York writes:
How does President Bush feel justified to veto a bill opening funding on stem cell research when 2 out of 3 voters (CNN) support increased funds for its pursuit? Am I wrong in observing this as a demonstration of the government representing its own will rather than the will of the people?

Dr. John Agwunobi
Thank you for the question Jared.

This policy isn't dictated by opinion polls. After extensive deliberation with medical and ethical leaders, the President decided upon a policy that he believes is best for the country. The President vetoed H.R. 810 to maintain a balance between advancing stem cell research and not crossing an important ethical line with taxpayer funding.

Ethical limitations on research have always been instituted by governments and the scientific community. In this nation, we have very extensive regulations on how human tissue can be used in research, how that tissue may be produced or derived, the rights of human subjects in medical research, and how new treatments may be tested on individuals. The development of new treatments and cures could possibly be accelerated in the absence of these protections, but our nation's scientists and elected officials have long held that in order to protect human life and dignity, certain ethical lines should never be crossed.

Joshua, from North Carolina writes:
Why does the president oppose stem cell research? From what i've read he didn't want taxpayer dollars to be alloted to "the destruction of human embryoes." Does he actually think that scientists are going to be using live embryoes? How much does he actually know about this anyway? In my oppinion this puts a hinderance on not only scientific research, but the advancement of the human species in general. What is so unethical about taking an embryo that is already dead, for all intensive purposes, and studying it. The thing is never going to go "goo goo ga ga", because its already dead. I wonder how many people will have to continue living with major problems, like spinal cord damage, for the rest of their lives because nobody knows how to fix it. That being said I wonder what those same people would say if they were told that there was a possibility that the damage to their bodies was reversable, but the president of the united states put a halt on the research?

Dr. John Agwunobi
Joshua, the President does not oppose stem cell research. He supports it. He believes in advancing this science to hopefully cure and ease the suffering of millions of Americans with diseases. The opportunities for medical breakthroughs are greater today than they have ever been, but we don't have to choose between science and ethics. Instead, we strive to achieve a balance. The federal National Institutes of Health (NIH) has funded over $90 million in embryonic stem cell research to date. That is an extraordinary amount for a new, emerging field. It is leading to exciting discoveries that expand our understanding of the body and diseases.

Actually, embryonic stem cells are derived from living embryos. The embryos must be living in order for the stem cells to continue growing into different tissues in the laboratory. The President vetoed a bill that for the first time would have used taxpayer dollars to incentivize the destruction of human embryos leftover from fertility clinics. Just because the embryos are to be discarded doesn't make it any more justifiable to fund their destruction.

In order to demonstrate that we all begin life as such embryos, the President was joined at his remarks yesterday by several "snowflake" children who had been adopted as spare frozen embryos that would have been discarded from fertility clinics.

John, from Calabasas, CA writes:
Is there a compromise in the Stem Cell Research funding issue that can be proposed so that we can move forward as a Nation in the development of cures for genetic diseases?

Dr. John Agwunobi
Thanks for writing John. The President's policy has achieved that compromise of advancing both science and ethics. Embryonic stem cell research in American is growing each year. More than $90 million of federal funding has been provided to date. 85 percent of all embryonic stem cell research published in the world has used the stem cell lines supported under the President's policy. American scientists are responsible for more than 45 percent of all international embryonic stem cell research. Private sector research on embryonic stem cell lines continues to grow and funding for adult stem cell research continues to grow.

Our nation's scientists are diligently working with these resources to explore the potential of stem cells, and we haven't crossed the line as a nation or using federal taxpayer dollars to support the destruction of embryos.

pam, from georgia writes:
I wish to express my thankfulness to President Bush. These snowflake children should be proof enough we don't need to use these precious ones for a sacrifice.

Dr. John Agwunobi
Thank you for your comment Pam. You are right that all life has value and we shouldn't violate our ethical principles in the name of science. The children who joined the President were adopted as frozen embryos that would have otherwise been discarded. Just because an embryo is unwanted, doesn't mean its any more justified for taxpayer dollars to support its destruction. As the President said, "These boys and girls are not spare parts." We must support the pursuit of science in everything we can but never without clear ethical principles.

Yesterday, the President tasked the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Director of the NIH to use all the tools at their disposal to help develop new techniques to extract and develop stem cell lines without harming or destroying embryos.

Robert, from Salinas, CA writes:
As the parent of a 15 year old daughter with Type I diabetes who injects insulin up to 5 times per day and finger sticks up to 8 times per day, I ask that you consider answering the following:How can you support a compromised position that limits Federal funding for research which potentially holds a cure for my daughter and over 1 million other people like her. This legislation will pass sooner or later so what is the point of delaying based upon your personal moral covictions which are not shared by the majority in our democracy?

Dr. John Agwunobi
Thank you for your question Robert. I am sorry to hear of your daughter's diabetes.

The President does not believe that we are forced to choose between science and ethics. The debate over this policy is healthy for America, but this nation has always strived to maintain a balance of scientific progress within ethical boundaries.

I think it is inappropriate to downplay or disregard the hope offered by the $800 million in human stem cell research that the federal government has funded to date, or the research that continues to grow in the private sector, or the nearly $2 billion in diabetes research that will be conducted at the NIH this year. The life-saving medical breakthroughs that have been achieved by our scientists today were unimaginable just a decade ago. I am confident that the ingenuity and dedication of our nation's scientists will continue to improve the health and healthcare of Americans.

Kingsley, from Houston writes:
Admiral Agwunobi, I have heard that adult cells have higher potential of medical breakthrough than embryonic stem-cells. How true is this? On another note, I would like to know if you're of African heritage, the name Agwunobi seems to be a Nigerian one.

Dr. John Agwunobi
Kingsley, there are many types of stem cells. First, embryonic stem cells have not led to any treatments or therapies to date, but they hold potential promise and that is why the President supports continued federal funding for research so long as it does not destroy any new living embryos. Second, adult stem cells are also being studied to develop new therapies. Adult stem cells from blood and bone marrow are already being used to treat blood cancers and other blood disorders such as sickle cell disease. Third, stem cells derived after birth from the placenta and umbilical cord are being studied and are currently used to treat children with genetic disorders of the blood and immune systems. These stem cells are being studied for their expanded use in adults. In total, more than $800 million in federal funding has been directed to all these kinds of research since 2002, with more than $90 million going to embryonic stem cell research.

To answer your other question, my father is Nigerian.

Jeffrey, from Indiana writes:
I have a spinal cord injury that has put me in a wheelchair. If I could walk , I wouldn't need Social Security Disability benefits or Medicaid. If abortion is legal, why not stem cell research?

Dr. John Agwunobi
Thank you for your question, Jeffrey. Stem cell research is legal. There is no ban on stem cell research. The private sector and numerous public institutions around the country and the world are conducting stem cell research right now. The President set a policy to fund all kinds of stem cell research so long as federal funding wasn't used for the destruction of living embryos. The federal government has for decades similarly prohibited the use of any taxpayer funds to provide abortions.

Scientists are currently using the embryonic stem cell lines funded by the federal government to generate motor neurons or other cells that transmit nerve impulses. If they are able to function in human beings after transplantation, these cells may serve as a renewable source of replacement motor neurons to treat spinal cord injury.

Dr. John Agwunobi
I wish I had more time to chat with you today. It has been a pleasure and I hope my responses have been helpful and clarifying. I hope to take your questions again some time.

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