Change in Climate for Stem Cells?

May 17, 2006

It’s been nearly five years since President Bush’s executive order limiting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, and some politicians are calling louder than ever for a bill that would render the order obsolete.

In May 2005, the House of Representatives passed the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which would provide government support for research on stem cells from embryos that would otherwise be discarded by fertility clinics. Senate passage of the bill would have overridden President Bush’s order, but ethical concerns about stem cell research -- some people have expressed concern that stem cells will lead to cloning, and pro-life advocates have argued that using the cells is like taking a life -- stopped the bill before it even got to a vote.

In the meantime, support for the bill has gained strength in the Senate, and some advocates for the research hope that flagging approval ratings for President Bush and Congressional Republicans have opened the door a little wider for stem-cell legislation, if they seek to woo moderate voters.

On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators urged passage of the measure. “We are pleased that Senator [Bill] Frist backs this bill, and has said he will schedule a vote on it this spring,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), said of the Senate Majority Leader. “Well, spring is here.”

Hatch added that “the longer we wait … the more difficult it is to keep politics out” of the decision to vote on the bill.

Frist, who fielded a few stem cell questions at a separate venue Tuesday, seemed to suggest that politics aren’t exactly out of the picture currently. “Every time I mention [the stem cell bill],” Frist said, “then I have four or five or six or seven other bills that people want to be considered,” he added, referring to various attachments that would specify guidelines for stem cell research and technologies that it breeds.

In 2001, Bush decided that federal money could be used only for research on stem cell lines that had been or were already being generated at that time, and only if the embryo had no chance of developing as a human being.

Scientific researchers said that making federal funding more available for stem cell studies is the only way to keep the United States at the forefront of biotechnology.

“We have $3 billion in California [for embryonic stem cell research], and there’s money in other states, and private money,” said David Baltimore, president of the California Institute of Technology. But without federal support, “I think a young bright scientist will look at the situation and say, ‘I don’t know how long it will be possible to do this.’ ” Bills have come before Congress in the past that would outlaw stem cell research altogether.

Baltimore added that “it looks like the center of gravity” in Congress is changing, and “I think that will give young scientists the sense that this is something they can plan their lives around.”

Hatch, along with Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Sen Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), presented public opinion polling results Tuesday from the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research that found that 72 percent of respondents support stem cell research.

“For the life of me I can't understand anyone who has seen children losing arms and eyes … from diabetes” who doesn’t support stem cell research, Hatch said. The embryos are “just going to be discarded as hospital waste anyway.”

Harkin added that “it’s high time to lift President Bush’s restrictions and let our top scientists go to work.”

Competitiveness with foreign researchers has been all the rage on Capitol Hill of late, and Baltimore said that stem cell research is a huge part of staying competitive. “Biotechnology is the quintessential American industry,” he said, adding that the stem cell restrictions are “a tremendous opening for people abroad. There’s no industry where we’ve been more effective at maintaining leadership.”

Some opponents of stem cell research have argued that, in allowing federally funded research on the 22 stem cell lines that were already available before Bush’s order, researchers already have the tools they need.

Scientists, however, said that of the 22 stem cell lines, only about seven are in the United States and available, and they’re in two states. Also, privately funded stem cell research has to be completely separated from any sort of federally funded research, so scientists working on stem cells with private money have to cloister themselves away from much of the rest of the research community.

Baltimore said that institutions are talking about having to build separate buildings to conduct privately funded stem cell research. And as far as ethical concerns, the best way to handle them, experts said, is not to have researchers working in isolation from the scientific community. “Visibility is the best assurance that people know what’s going on,” Baltimore said.

Additionally, the stem cell lines that can be used with federal funding were grown from cells derived from mice that may contaminate the lines with animal viruses.

The senators urged the public to bombard Frist with calls, faxes and e-mails. Frist said that he supports “stem cells, both embryonic and adult. But the embryonic stem cell research has to be done in an ethical, moral way. And I will bring up stem cells. We are working very hard to put together a package possibly -- possibly -- of three bills to bring to the floor. And I would expect, what I'd like to do is be able to get up-or-down votes on each of those three.”

Hatch said that he thinks the debate and vote on a stem cell bill, or package of bills, could be completed in a day and should happen this month. “We’ll be here at night,” he said.

Feinstein, though, said that “we’re going to be on immigration most likely until Memorial Day, then the seasons change.”

Frist said he expects to have the bill on the floor this summer.

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