Round 2 on Stem Cells

April 11, 2007

After President Bush vetoed legislation that would have eased restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research last year, supporters of the bill from both parties vowed to try again. That was even before the Democrats gained majorities in both houses of Congress.

Yesterday, supporters of an updated bill, taking into account some of their opponents' objections, kicked off a two-day round of debate in the Senate over the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, whose House counterpart passed in January without the supermajority required to override President Bush's promised veto. A separate bill allowing federal funds for research using stem cells originating from so-called "dead embryos," which has the president's support, is also making the rounds.

Supporters of the broader bill, including Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), held a news conference announcing their efforts Tuesday along with the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, a stem-cell-research advocacy group. They emphasized their support, but couldn't guarantee the 67 votes needed to pass a veto-proof bill. Last year, the Senate had 63 votes in favor of the law, and while Harkin said there would be more this time around, he said that it would be "very close." Some observers believe it may come down to one vote.

Leading science groups have been nearly unanimous in their support of loosening federal restrictions for funding embryonic stem-cell research. In an unusual break with the Bush administration, Elias Zerhouni, the director of the National Institutes of Health, told a Senate subcommittee last month that "it is in the best interest of our scientists, our science and our country that we find ways and the nation finds a way to allow the science to go full speed across adult and embryonic stem cells equally." He noted that claims about adult stem cells' potential approaching that of embryonic cells "do not hold scientific water."

Still, since last year, the bill has changed to incorporate language from another bill that sought to require the NIH to seek methods of extracting stem cells without destroying embryos. (In this year's bill, that would be on top of an easing of restrictions on research funding.) "Now [Bush] has the chance to enact it," Harkin said. The bill would not affect the current ban on federal funding for the actual extraction of stem cells from embryos through a process that at present destroys -- as critics contend, kills -- the embryos. There is "no scientific consensus on when an embryo is dead," said Robert Price, the associate vice chancellor for research at the University of California at Berkeley. "That's a religious issue."

Supporters also emphasize that, like the one last year, the bill allows extracting cells only from embryos donated for research purposes and that would otherwise be destroyed anyway, taking advantage of the inevitable consequences of in-vitro techniques currently in use at fertility clinics. The bill goes beyond current ethics guidelines, requiring written consent from donors.

Still, President Bush has remained stable in his opposition to the destruction of embryos for research purposes. A White House spokeswoman said yesterday that "the president would not ... use federal taxpayer dollars to fund anything that would destroy an embryo." U.S. stem-cell policy allows federal funding for embryonic lines extracted by Aug. 9, 2001. Since then, scientists have complained that many of the remaining lines have become contaminated ("every one of these lines," Feinstein said) and that research is hampered by federal restrictions, even when institutions rely on state funding (as in California, for example) or private sources, which are allowed.

Price, at Berkeley, said the benefits of loosening restrictions go beyond simply freeing up available funds. To make sure the research using embryonic stem cells does not benefit from any federal funds, they "have to take all kinds of precautions to separate out in [scientists'] laboratories the equipment, the people whose salary is paid for with federal funds," he said. The burden remains a problem even for studies that use only private or state funding, he said, forcing researchers to ensure that every "beaker and pipette ... has not been purchased with federal funds."

As for the bill backed by President Bush, which Harkin said he would also vote for, Price said, "It's very unlikely that so-called dead embryos would be a viable source" for potentially useful stem cells. "It creates another arena of debate which can't be resolved scientifically."

Terry Devitt, a spokesman at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, took a similar position. "We possess the five original stem-cell lines here, so those are all approved under the Bush compromise of 2001, and we can use them on campus and in concert with any federal funding that might be available. The problem is, the level of funding is low, and the playing field isn't level ... as compared to states that are now beginning to fund stem-cell research. Having pockets of research here and there is no way to do research. New lines are necessary, absolutely. The fact that no lines can be brought into play ... with federal funding sets the research back. It's delaying the progress of this research."

Another related issue is the creation of federal research guidelines, a necessary process that is hampered without the passage of a comprehensive stem-cell bill, suggested Barry Toiv, the director of communications and public affairs for the Association of American Universities. "Scientists are very clear about the potential benefits of embryonic stem-cell research. There's just no arguing that President Bush's policy has slowed down research that could lead to very great potential benefits particularly over the long term. The longer he continues to stay in the way, the longer we’ll have to wait for the kind of federal support that would push this research along."

Despite the broad scientific consensus, groups such as Do No Harm: The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics, continue to oppose federal funding of stem-cell research. Gene Tarne, the coalition's communications director, criticied S.5 for its contradictions. "Inherent in the bill’s inclusion of further research into alternatives to destructive embryonic stem cell research is the recognition that such research is ethically problematic," he said in an e-mail. "So if by including alternatives to embryonic stem cell research they are inherently acknowledging the ethical problems with it, why should the other part of the bill contradict itself by expanding federal support for the very line of research they now see as the ethically problematic one?"

Still, stem-cell supporters say that even if the current effort fails, they'll be back again: "Back and back and back until we do," Feinstein said.

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