Stem cell divide in midterm elections

Senate elections and Missouri initiative could influence the direction of research

Nov 1, 2006
Cathy Tran
Stem-cell politics has made an appearance as part of the midterm fight for seats in the Senate. Of the five states with "tossup" Senate elections, most have key candidates who differ sharply on the issue of embryonic stem cell research. In some races, candidates' positions on embryonic stem cells are expected to be "pivotal," according to Peter Agre, a Nobel laureate and a founding member of Scientists and Engineers for America, an organization recently formed to promote the understanding of science in the government.Missouri is a case in point. The key Senate battle there is between Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican incumbent Jim Talent, who are neck-and-neck in the polls. McCaskill supports expanding federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, while Talent opposes research that involves the destruction of human embryos and backed President Bush's veto of legislation to expand that research. The embryonic stem cell issue has been thrown into high relief in Missouri because of a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would ensure that any embryonic stem cell research and treatment allowed under federal law would be permitted in the state. McCaskill supports the amendment, while Talent opposes it.For the past five years, Missouri state legislators have tried to criminalize many forms of stem cell research and therapy, according to Donn Rubin, chairman of Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, a network of patient groups, medical organizations and scientists that is spearheading the push for the amendment. Rubin told The Scientist that state legislators have in particular targeted somatic cell nuclear transfer, which they argue should be illegal because it is a cloning method. If voters approve the amendment on Nov. 7, Missouri will join other states -- including California, Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland and Massachusetts -- that have passed initiatives supporting embryonic stem cell research.The Missouri amendment has drawn national attention, in part because of a wave of celebrity television ads on both sides of the debate. The actor Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, appears in one television spot trembling violently as a result of his illness. "In Missouri, you can elect Claire McCaskill, who shares my hope for cures," he says. "Unfortunately, Senator Jim Talent opposes expanding stem cell research. Senator Talent even wanted to criminalize the science that gives us a chance for hope. They say all politics is local, but that's not always the case. What you do in Missouri matters to millions of Americans - Americans like me." Pop star Sheryl Crow is also appearing in spots endorsing the amendment.In response, Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner has appeared in a commercial claiming that "there are certain issues that outweigh just finding a cure and doing research, and life is one of those." Other athletes and actors have also appeared in ads opposing the amendment.In Montana, the midterm elections will pit Democrat Jon Tester, a strong supporter of government funding for embryonic stem cell research, against Republican incumbent Conrad Burns. Tester, who leads by a hair in the polls, told The Scientist in an email that he is interested in "reversing the archaic thinking of the Bush Administration and my opponent, Sen. Burns, on the issue of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research." Burns' spokesperson, Matt Mackowiak, told The Scientist that "given the ethical and moral concerns raised by so many, [Burns] does not support federal funding of embryonic stem cell research" but that he does not oppose private funding.In Tennessee, there is a fight to fill the seat of Senate majority leader Bill Frist, a Republican physician who has been a vocal proponent of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Democrat Harold Ford, Jr., currently a member of the House, has voted in favor of expanding federal spending on embryonic stem cell research and has said he would continue to do so in the Senate. Bob Corker, the Republican candidate who's neck-and-neck with Ford in the polls, said in a debate this month that he approves of federal funding only for research on adult stem cells.Virginia's key Senate candidates are Democrat James Webb, who voted in favor of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005 (HR 810) as a member of the House, and Republican incumbent George Allen, who voted against it. The legislation, which would have allowed federal support of embryonic stem cell research regardless of the date on which the stem cells were derived, passed both the House and the Senate, but was vetoed by President Bush in July. Allen, who is a hair ahead in the polls, maintained in a recent interview with CNN that there are "at least half a dozen" approaches to stem cell research that avoid "the controversy of the ethics or the morals of destroying an embryo."Robert Menendez, the Democratic incumbent in New Jersey, voted in favor HR 810 and funding proposals for a stem cell research center in the state. Republican candidate Tom Kean, Jr., who leads by a slight margin in the polls, voted against funding for the center, but said in a televised debate earlier this month that he did so only because he thinks voters should approve it first as a ballot measure. "He voted against the bill because it used bonded money without voter approval in a time of fiscal crisis," campaign spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker told The Scientist. Stem cells have also come up as a campaign issue in Ohio, a hotly contested state that was considered a toss-up until just days ago. Democrat Sherrod Brown, an original co-sponsor of HR 810 in the House, has pulled ahead of Republican incumbent Mike DeWine in the polls. DeWine voted against HR 810 and has stated that he opposes "any bill that would expand existing policy by allowing the government to pay for studies on embryos in frozen storage at fertility clinics, even if the couples who conceive them certify that they would otherwise discard them." Although most of the tossup states have a right-left divide on embryonic stem cell research, Agre pointed out that "this is not a Republican or Democratic issue" and that some conservative politicians around the country are "catching on" to the importance of the research. Cathy Tran ctran@the-scientist.comLinks within this article:Tossup Senate elections Lewis, "Stem Cells... An Emerging Portrait," The Scientist, July 4, 2005 McCook, "Membrane channel work wins Nobel," The Scientist, Oct. 8, 2003 and Engineers for America Wilmut, "The Case for Cloning Humans," The Scientist, April 25, 2005 amendment Coalition for Lifesaving Cures Lewis, "The Clone Reimagined," The Scientist, April 25, 2005 Durso, "As Physician And Senator, Bill Frist Tries D.C. Balancing Act," The Scientist, June 23, 1997 McCook, "Senate okays expanded stem cell funding" (blog), The Scientist, July 18, 2006 Gotleib, "Compromise by Bush reinforces stem cell research ambiguity," The Scientist, Aug. 13, 2001 Agres, "Stem cell supporters upset by Bush veto," The Scientist, July 20, 2006