Vol. 3, Issue 9, March 29, 2005
Botanist Loses Funding for Illegal Stem Cell Research
A botanist at the University of Wyoming was stunned to learn that a 3-year, $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation was being revoked due to his work on an unapproved line of stem cells.
"But of course I'm working with stem cells," said Ian Henderson, associate professor of botany at UW. "It's rather hard to get around when doing work on a plant. What on earth is going on?"
Henderson ran afoul of the federal restriction on stem cell research, which is apparently being enforced by agents who are not clear on what, exactly, stem cells actually are.
"The law is perfectly clear on this point," said Gina Rosser, of the National Institute of Health Research Compliance Division. "There are approved cells and unapproved cells, and government money may not be used for the unapproved kind. Trust me: we have no trouble taking money back."
Stem cells are the foundation cells for every organ, tissue and cell in the body. They are like a blank microchip that can ultimately be programmed to perform any number of specialized tasks. Stem cells are undifferentiated, "blank" cells that do not yet have a specific function. While they are considered by many to hold substantial promise for medical research, the fact that they are often harvested from embryos has led to a substantial political furor. The Bush administration attempted to strike a compromise by permitting federally funded research to continue on a limited range of pre-existing stem cell lines only.
"Yes, but those are human stem cells," protested Henderson. "They aren't the same thing as plant stem cells at all."
The official position of the administration, however, is that stem cells are stem cells however you slice it.
"We are taking a firm stance on this very difficult issue," said President Bush in a press conference last Friday. "The issues are complicated, and many hairs are being split in an effort to get around the restrictions. Well, we're wise to that. A stem cell is a stem cell is a stem cell." When a reporter attempted to point out that in fact this was not the case, the president gave a wise smile and said, "Hey now, aren't you a troublemaker."
To complicate matters further, a warrant was issued for Henderson's arrest by the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agency when it was learned that he has also conducted work on pistil cells.
"I don't know much about science, but believe me, a pistil cell is just one step away from a terrorist cell," said Carl Truscott, director of the ATF. There was no word on whether Henderson's research on stamen cells would result in additional charges.
Henderson could not be reached at his office following the ATF announcement, but his secretary indicated that he could be reached by cell phone.
"Cell phone? My God... has the man no shame?" said Truscott.