Influence: The Stem Cell Freeze: Blackburn's White House Firing Inflames Science Policy Issues

First published August 2004

Should science be at the mercy of political interference? Famed UCSF cell biologist Elizabeth Blackburn doesn't think so. Last February 27, Blackburn experienced an interesting consequence of speaking her mind on stem cell research.

She and William May, a theologian and medical ethicist, were both dropped from President Bush's Council on Bioethics. Both had opposed a ban on therapeutic cloning, which involves making early-stage pre-implantation embryos available for use as sources of stem cells.

Put simply, Blackburn's status as a prize-winning cell biologist and researcher of chromosome telomere structure carried little influence in a council chaired by Leon Kass, a bioethicist from the University of Chicago, whose majority seemed determined to uphold the views of the White House, no matter the scientific evidence.

Concerns of political influence were echoed on June 21 by 48 Nobel laureates, including UCSF Chancellor Mike Bishop, who signed an open letter to the American people claiming that the "Bush administration has ignored unbiased scientific evidence in the policy-making that is so important to our collective welfare."

Blackburn says her "initial instinct was to turn down the offer" made in late 2001 because of the Bush administration's stand on controversial advances in biomedical research. "But I was persuaded to accept the appointment partly out of a sense of duty following the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and also because of assurances by Kass that diverse views would be heard and integrated into the statements of the council. He, and later the president himself, said that different points of view would be heard."

When the 18-member panel was announced in January 2002, Blackburn was one of only three full-time biomedical research scientists, among experts on law, philosophy, ethics and public policy. "Council members have been chosen not only for their specialized knowledge, but also for their thoughtfulness and their devotion to serious ethical inquiry," the White House press release stated.

Putting aside her own political views, Blackburn dived into her work, analyzing the latest stem cell research, attending scientific conferences, consulting with stem cell biologists and participating in lively debates. But she soon came to realize that the council's reports were going to be anything but fair and objective. Often taking stands at odds with other council members, Blackburn found that her words were edited or sometimes omitted entirely from the final written reports. Moreover, she was aghast that the council was instructed not to even consider research developments after July 2003 for inclusion in the "Report on Monitoring Stem Cell Research," which was not published until January 2004.

"The weight of the evidence that suggested adult stem cells do not have the same multipotent possibilities as embryonic stem cells has really shifted over the last two years," Blackburn explains. "My big concern was that this was not going to be reflected in the report." She was right. When Blackburn asked for revisions in the draft sections of the stem cell report, some changes were made while Kass denied others. Increasingly frustrated at the report-writing process, Blackburn requested that she see the final copy if her name was going to appear in any report.

When the council's two reports, "Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness" and "Monitoring Stem Cell Research," were issued, she made no secret of her disappointment. Blackburn and Janet Rowley, a current member of the council and a professor of medicine, molecular genetics, cell biology and human genetics at the University of Chicago, decided to publish their concerns about the council's reports in an essay titled "Reason as Our Guide," published in April in PloS Biology. They took issue with the council's characterization of age-related research as an obsession with mortality and its description of the vast differences between adult and embryonic stem cells, among other things. They sent the essay to Kass prior to its publication.

"These reports had as their premise the aim of neutrality in the scientific analysis of the issues addressed," Blackburn and Rowley wrote. "But our concern is that some of their contents, as in the few examples outlined above, may have ended up distorting the potential of biomedical research and the motivation of some of its researchers. Continuing discussions will form the basis for future decisions on these topics; keeping such discussion open and balanced is of paramount importance."

The next event was a Wednesday call from Washington in which Blackburn was asked to call the White House back on Friday afternoon -- the day she was abruptly dismissed from the council. "I was told later by Washington insiders that this administration commonly takes controversial action on Friday afternoons, when the news is expected to fall into a weekend void," Blackburn said.

Blackburn knew, of course, that because it was made up of presidential appointees, the bioethics council would not be immune from politics. In her one encounter with President Bush -- a meeting that took place before the council had even taken up the subject of cloning -- he made it clear that he thought all types of cloning were wrong. During her own vetting process, one of the first questions posed to her was who she voted for in the last presidential election. A native of Australia, Blackburn replied that she had not voted because she wasn't yet a US citizen (she became one in late 2003). Similarly, Blackburn was aware of the scathing report in February by the Union of Concerned Scientists criticizing the Bush administration for what it believes is a pattern of distorting and suppressing scientific analysis of research and undermining the quality of scientific advisory panels. But Blackburn didn't give it much thought until she became living proof. "It was like [the administration] said, ‘Let's provide a striking example,'" she recalls. "It did seem like the left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing."

Blackburn's abrupt departure from the bioethics council stirred intense media debate. Stories of her dismissal appeared in newspapers and web publications around the country, many of which questioned the Bush administration's motives. (Blackburn and May were replaced by three new members whose views much more closely parallel those of the majority.) Blackburn's stance was supported by professional scientific societies and patient advocacy groups, and she received many letters of support from physicians, scientists and patients across the country and around the world, nearly all outraged, she says, that the quest for scientific truth is "being manipulated for political ends."

In an invited opinion piece for the April 1 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine, Blackburn outlined why she supports embryonic stem cell research. "Recently, research breakthroughs in the generation and differentiation of human embryonic stem cells and increased understanding of these processes have suggested that this avenue of research will eventually lead to beneficial uses in health care," Blackburn wrote. "Work with animal models increasingly suggests that such research may result in therapies for diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and spinal injuries, among other conditions. Yet the best possible scientific information was not incorporated and communicated clearly in the council's report, suggesting that the presentation was biased."

Blackburn concluded with an impassioned plea for objectivity: "As a naturalized citizen of the United States, I have an immigrant's love for my country. But our country must not fail us. Scientific advice should and must be protected from the influence of politics."

Despite her experience, Blackburn believes she did make a difference. "I think it was important that we were on that council. I knew I was in the minority, and even though some of our input didn't get incorporated into the final reports, some did. It was important to engage in the process."

But will other scientists share the same perspective? Blackburn is clearly worried that scientists' healthy skepticism has turned to cynicism. Shortly after President Bush's Aug. 9, 2001, speech about limiting embryonic stem cell research to the existing stem cell lines, some American scientists, including UCSF's own Roger Pederson, began making plans to distance themselves from the federally funded restrictions. Pederson soon left for a job at Cambridge University because he felt his stem cell research options in this country were too limited. And more recently, a world leader in research on adult stem cells has refused to collaborate with the council for fear that his research will be overstated. "It's a shame that the best people in science do not trust the process; that was one of the things that shocked me the most," Blackburn says.

Worse, she continues, "people are just frozen in this field. The NIH [National Institutes of Health] have made heroic efforts to make stem cell lines available, but people don't want them." And although the NIH has been trying hard to get embryonic stem cell research to proceed by offering postdoctoral fellowships and supplemental grants, many beginning researchers are avoiding the uncertainty of such a politically charged field. "A pathetically small number of people have applied for the fellowships," Blackburn notes, and NIH deadlines for supplemental research funding for the NIH embryonic stem cell lines have been extended due to the lack of response.

Nonetheless, Blackburn remains hopeful about efforts to reignite interest in embryonic stem cell research for therapeutic purposes. (Blackburn does not support reproductive cloning aimed at creating babies.) As proof, she points to a bipartisan drive by 206 members of Congress that aims to rethink the decision to limit federally funded embryonic stem cell research to the existing stem cell lines, which are now old and somewhat dysfunctional. "There has to be some good way of getting more fresh embryonic stem cells into the system [from early-stage, pre-implantation embryos], with proper regulations and consent, of course," Blackburn says.

That trail could be pioneered by the state of California, which may ratify a $3 billion bond measure for the November ballot. The measure would make the Golden State the first in the nation to consider financing human embryonic stem cell research. Should that vote be scheduled, expect Blackburn, the newly minted American citizen, to be the first in line at her local precinct.

See also:

UCSF Magazine May 2003: The Female Factor Part 1: Women and Science at Mission Bay

Elizabeth Blackburn
Elizabeth Blackburn. Photo by Kaz Tsuruta.

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