It made for big news when President Bush confidently declared on prime-time television last month that private research had produced a trove of more than 60 stem-cell lines. Most experts had assumed that there were as yet only a dozen or so such colonies of the cells that might become weapons against a range of debilitating diseases, from Alzheimer's to juvenile diabetes to Parkinson's. The vastly larger number was enough, Bush said, to "explore the promise and potential of stem-cell research"--and, not incidentally, enough to give him room for a politically palatable compromise on the question of federal funding. But last week came another surprise, when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released a catalog of the existing 64 stem-cell lines that are eligible for government money--a surprise, this time, to the researchers around the globe who were reportedly producing them.
Startled scientists from Mumbai, India, to Goteborg, Sweden, to San Diego cautioned that many of their embryonic stem-cell colonies were not yet--and may never be--worthy of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson's claim that they are robust and viable for research. Goteborg University, for instance, was credited with the world's largest cache--19 lines--even though its researchers had told Thompson the week before that only three had progressed beyond the earliest, most tentative stages. Goteborg fertility expert Lars Hamberger told the Washington Post that he and his colleagues thought the White House either had made a "mistake" or had decided to "stretch things" to suit its need for a larger number. And while the tiny San Diego biotech firm CyThera Inc. was credited with the largest number of lines in this country, CEO Michael Ross concedes that "we're not there with any of our nine yet." What the company has, Ross says, are "derivations" that may or may not develop into stem cells capable of transforming themselves into endlessly replenishing muscle, brain or other tissue.
A favorite phrase of Bush's is "sound science"--one he uses to justify his stance on issues from global warming to phonics. But to skeptics, the evidence on which he made the stem-cell decision is beginning to look more like the haul from a political scavenger hunt. "It's not very thorough work, lacking in the depth that this issue required and that they were ballyhooing the President had put into it," says Democratic Senator John Kerry.
How did the number grow so big? In the weeks before the President's speech, an order came down to the NIH from Thompson: Work the scientific grapevine to find out how many cell lines might conceivably exist. But Jay Lefkowitz, the White House official who worked the issue with HHS, insists that it was merely an effort to build on existing NIH data. Last month Lefkowitz said it was "at the President's direct instigation" that he asked the NIH "to press further" in its search. But, he told Time last week, "no one said, 'Jay, go out and find more lines because we don't think there are enough.' The question wasn't, How many are there? It was, Are there enough to do serious research?"