US pro-stem cell mission ready for fight
Bush set to veto crunch Senate vote
A cross-party American delegation has cautioned the US is lagging on embryonic stem cell research, and medical progress is suffering worldwide as a result. The group, currently visiting the UK, appealed for President Bush to withdraw a threat to veto a Bill set to be revive the impoverished American stem cell research community.
Bill HR 810 was introduced last year by House members Diana DeGette (Democrat, Colorado) and Michael Castle (Republican, Delaware). It proposes lifting Bush's moratorium on developing new useful stem cell lines, and lays down a framework for ethical regulation for use of surplus IVF embryos with informed donor consent. Republican Senate majority leader Bill Frist has promised a vote on HR 810 in the next few weeks, and its backers are confident of success.
Congresswoman DeGette said: “I hope...the President will not issue his first veto on a Bill that could help millions of Americans.”
The bipartisan group made their comments at the Royal Society in London, at the end of a fact-finding mission this week which saw them consult with UK politicians, regulators and scientists on the issues surrounding the contentious field. Embryonic stem cells have the power to develop into any cell in the body, and advocates say they have the potential to revolutionise treatment of a whole rannge of conditions; from diabetes to spinal cord injury, Parkinson's disease and more.
A recent poll conducted by pro-stem cell group the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research found 72 per cent of Americans in favour of advancing stem cell research. Congressman Jim Langevin (Democrat, Rhode Island) said: “I'm willing to bet those in the remaining percentage haven't been educated on the issues.”
The issue has climbed back up the political agenda Stateside of late. Since HR 810 was passed in the House ten months ago, religious right-wingers have been accused of stalling its progress. DeGette said the sway of public opinion in favour of the scientists and the should serve as a marker of the potential political cost of Bush vetoing the Bill. She cautioned: “I think there will be political consequences.” Midterm congressional elections are set for November 7 this year.
Bush announced in August 2001 he would effectively block state funding of new research areas in a TV address. He said: “As a result of private research, more than 60 genetically diverse stem cell lines already exist. I have concluded that we should allow federal funds to be used for research on these existing stem cell lines, where the life and death decision has already been made.”
Scientists say the 60 cell lines the President referred to are now down to just 22. None of the pre-moratorium lines can be used in medical applications since they have been found to be contaminated by animal cells used in early culture techniques.
Explaining his moral objections, Bush continued: “Researchers are telling us the next step could be to clone human beings to create individual designer stem cells, essentially to grow another you, to be available in case you need another heart or lung or liver.”
Supporters of the Bill argue that such Brave New Worlds are actually more likely in the US given the current state of legislation. Although public money is completely steered away from research on more viable cell lines, private firms seeking to benefit commercially are free to develop technologies and tinker with embryos unchecked. Such a “head in the sand” approach is not just dumb, they say, it's dangerous.
In the UK stem cell researchers must apply to the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Authority for permission to conduct their research. Since its founding in 1991, when stem cell research was itself embryonic, the Authority has managed to sail a course that has satisfied most on both sides of the ethics versus progress debate. DeGette praised the UK's approach as “very impressive”.
The Royal Society's top stem cell expert Sir Richard Gardener cautioned against complacency in the UK though, pointing out that if science suffers in the US, effects are felt everywhere. He said: “More federally-funded research on human embryonic stem cells in the United States would increase the number of researchers who are active in this important field and thus hasten progress towards new therapies.”
When the Senate vote does happen it's likely supporters will get the majority needed to override a Bush veto. Even several “pro-life” Senators have come out against Bush on stem cell research. The House of Representatives is less likely to deliver a two thirds vote against the President however. DeGette said that if Bush does impose his moral objections she would still be hope to overturn the decision.
Langevin said: “Just as these diseases don't go away, this issue isn't going to go away”. An anti-abortionist himself, he sees no conflict between support for both embryonic stem cell scientists and his “pro-life” position. He said: “As far as I'm concerned [stem cell technology] offers hope to millions. What could be more pro-life than that?”®