By Michael Kranish, Globe Staff, 7/3/2002

ETHESDA, Md. - The newly installed director of the National Institutes of Health publicly stated his views yesterday for the first time on the cloning of human tissues, issuing a call for more medical researchers to get into the controversial field. His carefully worded statement was made in reply to a question about ''therapeutic cloning,'' which President Bush has said should be criminalized even when done by privately funded researchers.
Dr. Elias Zerhouni also hailed work being done on stem cell research as ''one of the top scientific opportunities of the moment.''

Zerhouni's views on stem cell research and therapeutic cloning could have far-reaching impact on the medical research community in Massachusetts and elsewhere.
Bush has ordered that stem cell research funded by the government be limited to 60 existing lines, and the NIH is prohibited from working on cloning of human tissues because of a 1995 law banning certain types of embryonic research. Zerhouni, who came to the NIH five weeks ago with a vow to examine ''facts, not factions,'' yesterday said in his first meeting with reporters since then that he aimed to go where those facts lead on both therapeutic cloning and stem cell research.

In meeting with a small group of print reporters at the NIH campus here, Zerhouni set the tone for his stewardship of the world's largest medical research facility by saying that he hoped to oversee a ''quantum leap'' in medical discoveries. That, he said, is the best way to control the nation's spiraling health care costs.

''It is very difficult for me to see how the country will overcome the difficulties posed by the growth of health care expenditures without renewed discovery efforts,'' Zerhouni said. ''The only thing that can really change it are quantum leap discoveries that can make a quantum leap difference in the delivery of health care.''

That statement led to questions about whether such quantum leaps could come without greater stem cell research and human tissue cloning.

Stem cell research and human tissue cloning are opposed by some who view the research as involving the destruction of human life.

Asked whether he agrees with Bush's call for legislation that would criminalize all forms of cloning, which has passed the House but has stalled in the Senate, Zerhouni said: ''To me, the science is so early that what we need to do is develop the scientific field, get more people into doing the research that needs to be done. At this point I don't think we are anywhere near clinical implementation. Let's step back for a second.''

A spokesman said later that this was the first time Zerhouni publicly has addressed the topic of ''therapeutic cloning,'' which involves the cloning of tissues and is different from reproductive cloning of human beings, which has no political support.

Zerhouni, who established the Institute for Cell Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, urged similar restraint in the debate about stem cell research. Some scientists believe that such research can eventually produce tissue that can be used to cure certain diseases.

''Stem cell research in my mind raises very fundamental questions about fundamental biological issues,'' Zerhouni said.

''The simple discovery that you may have `plasticity' that changes the fate of one cell towards another, or the entire issue of epigenetic programming, that is for me a revolutionary concept that should rank as one of the top scientific opportunities of the moment,'' he said.

Epigenetic programming is a field related to stem cell research in which scientists seek to understand why cells have certain functions, and seek to change those functions in the laboratory.

As part of that process, scientists hope the reprogrammed cells can be used to treat diseases.

The NIH has an enormous impact on the Massachusetts economy, sending $1 billion annually for research to Boston universities, teaching hospitals, and biotechnology companies, more than to any other city in the country.

Facilities in the rest of Massachusetts receive $600 million, making the state the second-largest recipient of NIH funds after California.

Those amounts have risen steadily as NIH's budget has doubled in the past five years, prompting much concern in the research community about whether the research dollars now will begin to decline.
Zerhouni said it's ''hard to know'' whether NIH needs another significant budget increase, and he noted that the Bush administration is operating under difficult budget constraints.
But Zerhouni's call for a ''quantum leap'' in medical discoveries is likely to be interpreted in many quarters as a call for even greater investment in research.

This story ran on page A3 of the Boston Globe on 7/3/2002.
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