Prospects murky for US stem cell funding

Senate bill to expand Federal stem cell research bogged down in election-year politics

By | June 8, 2006

Leading U.S. senators are hoping to remove political roadblocks and pass legislation allowing the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other agencies to make Federal research funds available for newly derived human embryonic stem cells (hESC). Despite wide bipartisan support, however, their bill has been withheld from full Senate consideration due to a combination of election-year politics and a promised veto by President Bush should it be passed into law. The legislation, the ?Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005? (HR 810, S 471), which passed the House of Representatives in May 2005, would expand Federal research funding to hESC lines regardless of when they were derived. Current Federal funding is limited to an approved list of stem cell lines that were derived before Aug. 9, 2001, when Bush announced the policy. Senate Majority leader Bill Frist (R- Tenn.) ? who surprised many of his conservative colleagues last July when he abruptly decided to support expanded stem cell research and promised to bring the controversial matter to the full Senate ? has been working with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), and others to craft an election-year compromise. The package of competing stem cell bills would give senators seeking re-election sufficient ?political cover? with their constituents yet hopefully bring resolution to the long-simmering debate, congressional sources and biomedical research policy analysts say. "The senator hopes to bring the bill to the floor before the end of the summer but at this time there is no specific timeline,? said Frist spokesperson Carolyn Weyforth. ?Senator Frist is working with his colleagues because of the significant scientific and ethical issues involved," she told The Scientist. Frist, Hatch, and other stem cell supporters are seeking to get a unanimous consent agreement from all 100 senators to bring at least three different competing stem cell bills to the floor for a series of ?up or down? votes, according to Hatch spokesman Peter Carr. Votes would be held without debate or the possibility of inserting amendments, and each bill would require 60 votes to pass. ?The bills included in that package are still quite unclear, but if we get it, it can be voted on without taking too much time,? Carr told The Scientist. In addition to HR 810, bills under consideration include a measure (S 658) by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) to criminalize human cloning and somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) of human embryos; a bill (S 876) by Hatch and Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) to outlaw human cloning but allow SCNT for research; and an alternative research bill (S 2754) by Specter and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) that would direct NIH to find ways of deriving hESC without destroying human embryos. Congressional sources and policy analysts say at least 60 senators are expected to support HR 810/S 471 to expand stem cell funding ? enough to pass the bill but probably not the two-thirds necessary to override a presidential veto. In the House, where the bill passed by 238 to 194 last year, an additional 52 votes would be needed for an override. Any legislation that fails to pass this year needs to be reintroduced next year. Concerned over the veto, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), who cosponsored HR 810, has requested a meeting with Bush. "I would welcome the opportunity to sit down with President Bush and explain to him the impact his veto will have on the millions of Americans suffering from diseases like Parkinson's, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis," she told The Scientist in an email. A truncated election-year schedule further compounds matters. Congress plans to take a week off for the Fourth of July and be out all of August. And if lawmakers follow the usual summer pattern of not voting on Mondays and Fridays, ?we?re not talking about many legislative days left? before the November elections, said Dave Moore, senior associate vice president for governmental relations at the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Ted Agres Links within this article ?Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005? (HR 810) ?Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005? (S 471) K. Pallarito, ?NIH stem cell chief resigns,? The Scientist, April 21, 2006 NIH Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry The President Discusses Stem Cell Research "Unanimous consent agreement" ?Human Cloning Prohibition Act of 2005? (S 658) ?Human Cloning Ban and Stem Cell Research Protection Act of 2005? (S 876) ?Alternative Pluripotent Stem Cell Therapies Enhancement Act? (S 2754)

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