A black eye for bioethics

On Friday, Feb. 27, professor Elizabeth Blackburn, an internationally renowned cell biologist, received a surprise phone call from the White House, informing her that her services on the President's Council on Bioethics, on which she had served since its inception in 2001, would no longer be required. Her dismissal, which follows her decision to publicly air concerns about the tenor and accuracy of the council's published reports, raises serious questions about the diversity and objectivity of the bioethics council, and does further damage to President Bush's standing in the scientific community.

Blackburn is an expert on telomeres (the aglet-like tips of chromosomes that have central roles in cancer and aging) at the University of California at San Francisco, and is by far the most knowledgeable of the 18 council members on the biology of stem cells. Indeed, she was one of only three scientists on the panel, the purpose of which is to "advise the president on bioethical issues that may emerge as a consequence of advances in biomedical science and technology."

By all appearances, Blackburn's unceremonious dismissal is attributable to her audacity in publicly voicing concerns regarding misstatements in published council reports, including one last year on stem cell research. Her dismissal came shortly after she showed council chairman Leon Kass a draft of an article, co-authored with fellow panelist Janet Rowley, that appeared in the April edition of PLoS Biology (www.plosbiology.org). In that article, Blackburn and Rowley list a series of concerns about two published reports, "Beyond Therapy" and "Monitoring Stem Cell Research."

Replacing Blackburn and 76-year-old William May (who has distanced himself from the controversy) are two political scientists and a pediatric neurosurgeon, all of whom are on record as being critical of, if not downright hostile to, stem cell research and therapeutic cloning.

Although Kass deigned not to inform Blackburn personally of her dismissal, he wasted no time in denying allegations of political interference. In a Washington Post op-ed column, he wrote, "Charges that her replacement is in any way connected to opinions she expressed are simply false," although he remarked somewhat gratuitously that she did not attend every meeting, as if that were grounds for instant dismissal right there. But Blackburn harbors no doubts. Kass "doesn't like his authority to be questioned," and has "a nausea for diversity," she told reporters, adding: "I think this is Bush stacking the council with the compliant."

Scientists and bioethicists are appalled. "I can't imagine a more thoughtful person to participate on the council," said Nobel laureate Harold Varmus, who had advised Kass prior to the panel's formation. The prominent University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Art Caplan sent a letter to President Bush with 60 co-signatories protesting the council's diminished diversity. "On controversial ethical issues your council must consist of members with a wide range of opinions in order to provide wise, prudent, and effective advice."

Eric Meslin, former executive director of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission and now director of the Indiana University Center for Bioethics, says he cannot recall such concern and worry about the perceived breadth of representation of the council. "Advisory committees have to appear fair and balanced," he says. "It should give the public some pause as to whether the advice being given to the highest levels of government should be read as objective and the best that science and ethics has to offer."

As for the latest recruits, Caplan says: "I don't think this is the best bioethics has to offer -- I don't even think this is the best the right wing has to offer."

'Suppression and distortion'

The bioethics brouhaha epitomizes the serious concerns raised in a damning report on the Bush administration's misuse of science, released in February by the Union of Concerned Scientists (www.ucsusa.org/global_environment/rsi/report). The report documented 21 cases that signify a "well-established pattern of suppression and distortion of scientific findings by high-ranking Bush administration political appointees" to an "unprecedented" degree. The report has been endorsed by more than 60 distinguished scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates.

Ironically, the shake-up of the bioethics council and Kass' assertion that its work will be moving away from the field of embryonic stem (ES) cell research (hence rendering Blackburn dispensable) coincides with several important advances on multiple fronts. In February, researchers in South Korea reported the first successful cloning of a human embryo, from which they were able to extract ES cells.

That was followed by news that Harvard University is planning to create a US$100-million Stem Cell Institute, built with private funds to circumvent the resource restrictions imposed by President Bush in 2001 on federally funded researchers. Harvard's institute is one of several stem cell institutes under development across the country, such as UCSF's Developmental and Stem Cell Biology Program, to which Intel founder Andy Grove pledged $5 million in matching funds in 2002.

Last month Doug Melton, the designated co-director of the Harvard institute, detailed in The New England Journal of Medicine the creation of 17 new ES cell lines, which he will make freely available to eligible researchers. Melton says his lines are robust, easy to handle, and he hopes that "sharing these cells will quicken the pace of discovery."

The NEJM welcomed the new source of ES cells, recommending they be added to the NIH stem cell registry: "There is too much suffering that may be remediable through the therapeutic application of this new approach to place the new cell lines off limits to many North American research scientists."

That view, however, is unlikely to be endorsed by Bush's reconstituted bioethics council. Newcomer Diana Schaub, a political scientist at Loyola College, has written that therapeutic cloning, which uses frozen embryos that would otherwise be discarded, is tantamount to "slavery plus abortion."

With issues such as gay marriage dominating the political headlines, science policy is unlikely to emerge as the defining theme of the 2004 presidential election. But by sacrificing scientific expertise and diversity on its bioethics council, while denying the nation's pre-eminent scientists the opportunity to pursue potentially life-saving research, the Bush administration is turning it into an issue -- an issue that has riled up his likely opponent.

Sen. John Kerry responded to bioethics' Black Friday by stating that Bush "kicked two people off the commission because they happen to think we ought to be doing stem cell research, and he doesn't want that outcome. It is clear that the administration has no respect for science."

Perhaps he can summon a knockout punch.

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