Stem cell veto spurs Md. alarm

Bush restrictions slowing progress, researchers say

June 21, 2007|By Chris Emery | Chris Emery,Sun reporter

President Bush vetoed legislation to expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research yesterday, prompting officials at Maryland research institutions to issue warnings that restrictions on the science are slowing medical progress.

Some scientists in Maryland have patched together state grants and private donations to keep embryonic stem cell work going, but others have shied away for lack of federal support, officials said.

That has blunted Maryland's competitive edge in medical research, they said, and in the long run could prevent scientists from turning their theories into treatments for disease.

"I don't think that philanthropy or the state of Maryland is really going to be enough to fund the kind of clinical trials to help patients," said Dr. Chi V. Dang, vice dean of research at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "It's sufficient to do some of the groundwork, but once we start clinical trials we are going to need much more."

The Bush veto - his second of legislation that would overturn an executive order restricting stem cell funding - means that it's doubtful that there will be any expansion of federally backed stem cell research during his last 19 months in office.

Though some Republicans joined Democrats in passing the bill, supporters do not have the two-thirds majority needed in both the House and Senate to override the president's veto.

Along with many religious conservatives, Bush opposes research that would result in the destruction of embryos to harvest stem cells despite strong support for the work among researchers and the public.

"If this legislation became law, it would compel American taxpayers - for the first time in our history - to support the deliberate destruction of human embryos," Bush said during a White House news conference yesterday. "I made it clear to Congress and to the American people that I will not allow our nation to cross this moral line."

He issued an executive order requiring the National Institutes of Health to ensure federal funding for research on adult stem cell lines that, like embryonic stem cells, can mature into a number of cell types.

Democrats in Congress, including several from Maryland, criticized Bush for impeding medical progress and said they would keep the issue before the public through the 2008 presidential election.

"Democrats will continue to fight to lift the current restrictive policy on federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells so that we can look back on this administration's approach as nothing more than a regrettable, temporary anomaly," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland.

Critics said the president's executive order was disingenuous because it is now impossible to make adult stem cells that are as flexible as embryonic stem cells. They said embryonic stems cells hold the most promise for combating illnesses such as Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injuries and strokes.

Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Maryland Republican who sponsored legislation that would require federal funding of research into methods of obtaining stem cells without creating or destroying human embryos, welcomed the Bush veto.

"Science and medical research should serve life, not sacrifice life," Bartlett said before going to the White House to stand at Bush's side.

Since Bush restricted stem cell research in 2001, Maryland has joined several states in filling the void with state funds.

Last month, the Maryland Stem Cell Research Commission allotted $14.5 million to 24 stem cell projects, at least 10 of which involved embryonic cells.

Before the state fund was created in 2006, researchers who wanted to use stem cells derived from embryos were mostly dependant on private grants or were restricted to a few stem cell lines that qualified for federal money.

Gov. Martin O'Malley increased stem cell funding from $15 million under the Ehrlich administration to $23 million in the budget for fiscal year 2008, which begins July 1.

Though officials said Bush's veto increases the need for state money, Maryland's pending shortfall makes it unclear whether that is possible.

"The governor is committed to continuing to fund stem cell research but I can't speak to the exact dollar amounts, given the $1.5 billion structural deficit that this administration inherited," said Rick Abbruzzese, O'Malley's press secretary. The Bush veto "is disappointing, and what it means is that states like Maryland will have to continue to lead on this issue, without any support from the federal government."

Baltimore Democrat Samuel I. Rosenberg, one of the House of Delegates' leading supporters of stem cell research, said he still hopes for more money in fiscal 2009.

"There is no issue that affects more lives and gives people more hope than this, and you can see it in people's faces and their body language when you go out and talk about this issue," he said.

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