Senate bill aims to end limits on stem cell research funds

April 11, 2007|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,Sun Reporter

WASHINGTON -- Supporters of embryonic stem cell research launched a new effort yesterday to remove federal restrictions on the controversial research, but they face a steep climb overcoming President Bush's opposition.

Democrats and Republicans in the Senate began lobbying for legislation whose revisions they hope will win enough votes to override a presidential veto. Senators kicked off daylong debate on the floor of the chamber with a public plea for passage and urged supporters around the country to call recalcitrant members of Congress.

"We just plain can't quit pushing," said GOP Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah. He said his support for the legislation doesn't violate his opposition to abortion, saying human embryos wouldn't be destroyed because the plan would draw stem cells from embryos left over from fertility treatments.

The legislation would authorize federal funding of research into stem cells derived from embryos that fertility clinics would otherwise discard. Donors would have to agree to give up the left-over embryos. "There are some 400,000 of these embryos," said Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican. "The alternative is to discard them or use them to save life."

The measure also has a provision that would encourage research into stem cells derived by methods other than by destroying embryos.

Public support

The campaign marks the latest effort to lift restrictions on the research since Bush limited federal funding to lines of stem cells created on or before Aug. 9, 2001. Many scientists say the limits have sharply curbed progress in a field that holds potential for developing cures for Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis and other debilitating diseases. The scientists say they believe embryonic stem cells hold the greatest promise because they can turn into any kind of cell in the body.

Embryos are destroyed during the course of research. Nevertheless, polls show that a majority of Americans support research, especially into embryonic stem cells no longer needed in fertility treatments.

But foes, many of whom link the issue to their opposition to abortion, argue that loosening the president's funding restrictions would promote creation of human embryos to destroy them during experimentation.

"Will we sanction the destruction of nascent human life with federal taxpayer dollars?" asked Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a GOP presidential candidate.

Opponents have proposed a competing bill that would allow federal funding of research into stem cells already dead.

"It opens a door without crossing a cultural line," said Sen. Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican who is a sponsor of the measure. Bush supports that legislation. Supporters of unrestricted federal research said that they had no problem with the bill, but that it doesn't go far enough.

The outcome of the debate is being keenly watched in Maryland, home to a number of universities and companies interested in the work, as well as the National Institutes of Health.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, voiced support for lifting funding restrictions during a news conference at the Johns Hopkins' Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Republican from western Maryland, encouraged scientists to find alternatives to deriving stem cells by destroying embryos.

"You don't need to kill embryos to develop these embryonic stem cell lines," said Bartlett, who argues that discarding embryos forfeits the chance that one of them might develop into another Beethoven or Einstein.

Supporters of unrestricted research acknowledge the difficulty of securing the 67 votes necessary to override a presidential veto.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said backers might have only as many as 66 votes. Last year's measure passed with 63 votes.

Support in the House, meantime, isn't close to veto-proof. The chamber passed stem cell legislation in January that was 37 votes short of the supermajority needed.

Bush intends to veto either that measure or the Senate proposal easing funding restrictions.

"Destroying nascent human life for research raises serious ethical problems, and millions of Americans consider the practice immoral," the White House said in a statement.

`Slows things down'

During the past six years, the federal government has spent more than $130 million on embryonic stem cell research under Bush's policy, according to the White House.

Bush's restrictions don't bar states and private institutions from subsidizing embryonic stem cell research. But those efforts have proceeded haltingly, supporters of uninhibited research complain.

Maryland, for example, funded research for the first time this year, but there was enough money for only $15 million of $86 million in proposed projects. Next year, state funding will rise to $23 million.

Valina L. Dawson, a Johns Hopkins researcher, said she struggles separating equipment she can use for her federally funded investigation from the supplies she must use for her work involving embryonic stem cell lines that don't have federal approval. "It slows things down," said Dawson, who is studying whether stem cells can be used to restore brain function in victims of stroke and Parkinson's disease.

jonathan.rockoff@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Matthew Hay Brown and Chris Emery contributed to this article.

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