12 April 2007

Doomed stem cell bill passed

The US Senate voted Wednesday to ease restrictions on federally funded embryonic stem cell research, ignoring President George W. Bush's threat of a second veto.

The US Senate voted Wednesday to ease restrictions on federally funded embryonic stem cell research, ignoring President George W. Bush's threat of a second veto on legislation designed to lead to new medical treatments.

The 63-34 vote was shy of the margin that would be needed to overturn the president's veto, despite gains made by supporters in last autumn's elections.

Voting to heal the sick
"Not every day do we have the opportunity to vote to heal the sick," said Democrat Claire McCaskill, a senator for less than 100 days following a tough 2006 campaign in which the stem cell controversy played a particularly prominent role. "It is a noble cause," she said.

"We're going to use federal money, indirectly or directly, to destroy embryos," countered Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, echoing Bush's argument against the legislation. Coburn said claims of imminent scientific breakthroughs from embryonic stem cell research are unsubstantiated, and adult stem cells already have been shown to be useful in a variety of cases.

The House of Representatives, which passed similar legislation this year, is expected to adopt the Senate's version in the next several weeks for Bush's veto.

The Senate bill, Bush said, "is very similar to legislation I vetoed last year. This bill crosses a moral line that I and many others find troubling. If it advances all the way through Congress to my desk, I will veto it," the president said in a statement after the vote.

Urged to reconsider
Despite the criticism, the bill's chief sponsor urged the president to give the bill another look. "I urge him to reconsider this bill and sign it," said Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. "Unleash America's scientists."

Capping two days of debate, the Senate also voted 70-28 to pass a separate measure backed by Republicans. It supported research in adult stem cells.

Bush said this legislation builds on "ethically appropriate research," and he urged Congress to pass the measure "so stem cell science can progress, without ethical and cultural conflict."

The Senate's action marked the latest act in a drama that blends science and politics on an issue that affects millions of disease sufferers and their families.

"It's extremely frustrating to go through this Kabuki dance a second time with the president," said Peter Kiernan, head of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, which funds research.

"The one thing we know is we will outlast him."

Stem cells are created in the first days after conception. They are typically culled from frozen embryos, which are destroyed in the process. According to the National Institutes of Health Web site, scientists have been able to conduct experiments with embryonic stem cells only since 1998.

Huge healing potential
The embryonic stem cells can transform into a "dazzling array of specialised cells," the Web site says. That is the property that scientists and others say offers the potential for the development of treatment for diseases as varied as juvenile diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

There was no federal funding for the work until Bush announced on 9 August 2001 that his administration would make it available for lines of stem cells that were already in existence. Elected with the strong support of abortion foes and other conservatives, he said then that his decision was designed to balance concerns about "protecting life and improving life."

He also limited the funds to cell lines derived from embryos that were surplus at fertility clinics, and that had been donated from adults who had given informed consent.

Advocates of the veto-threatened legislation argue that the number of stem cell lines available for research is smaller than needed, and some of the material has become contaminated over time by mouse embryonic skin cells that typically are placed at the bottom of culture dishes used in the research.

The bill would permit funding for research on embryonic stem cells regardless of the date of their creation, as long as they were donated from in-vitro fertilisation clinics, they would "otherwise be discarded", and donors gave their approval.

Previous bill vetoed
Bush cast the only veto of his presidency on a stem cell bill last year, but public support for the research is strong. Democrats sought to use that to their advantage in the 2006 congressional election campaigns.

Missouri became a testing ground, where McCaskill challenged Republican Sen. Jim Talent, who opposed expanded federally funded research. Michael J. Fox appeared in a television ad advocating greater research, and the visual image was arresting - the 45-year-old actor swaying from his Parkinson's disease.

With federal funding limited, several states and private institutions have moved into the void.

California, New York and New Jersey have programmes. Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts recently announced he hoped to overturn restrictions left in place by his Republican predecessor.

"We in Massachusetts increasingly see this as a competitive issue," said Dr George Daley of Children's Hospital and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. He said private institutions compete to hire promising scientists drawn to the field.

"I would say it's revolutionised biomedical research," he said.

Rebutting claims by critics, he said, "You can't expect a cell which burst on the scene only as recently as 1998 to have found its way into patients yet. I don't know of any biological technology that translates into patients that soon." - (Sapa-AP)

Read more:
New stem cell bill, new veto
Bush crushes stem cell hopes

April 2007


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