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The US Congress passed a controversial bill last week to allow federal funding of research that uses embryonic stem cells.
However, George Bush issued a statement immediately after the bill was passed saying that he will veto the bill on his return from the G8 summit in Germany. “If this bill were to become law,” said President Bush, “American taxpayers would for the first time in our history be compelled to support the deliberate destruction of human embryos.”
Although the bill was passed by a wide margin, it did not meet the two thirds majority needed to override any veto. Nevertheless, politicians who favour stem cell research are hoping to rally enough votes to override the anticipated presidential veto.
Pro-life advocates oppose the bill, saying that embryonic stem cell research involves the destruction of an embryo—which they say constitutes the taking of a human life. Some pro-life advocates, however, such as Senator Bill Frist, do support government funding of stem cell research, because they think it could potentially treat or cure serious illnesses such as Parkinson's disease, diabetes, and spinal cord injuries.
A 2006 report by the US Interagency Federal Working Group on Regenerative Medicine cautions that federal restrictions on funding of stem cell research put the “US presence in regenerative medicine . . . in danger of being eclipsed.”
The report says, “More than 40% of the regenerative medicine firms founded since 2000 have been outside of the US.” It continues: “Already, Japan, the European Union, China and Australia have begun national initiatives . . . [including] extensive financial investment by the Japanese government.”
Michael Hurlbut, a doctor and a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, said that alternatives to cells derived from destroyed embryos could be developed, which would allow important research to advance with the support of the pro-life lobby.
Embryonic stem cell research is not banned in the United States: the current battle is solely over whether federal funds can be used for such research. In 2001 President Bush stopped federal funding of stem cell research involving all cell lines developed after that year, but he allowed researchers to continue using cell lines developed before 2001 and allowed private industry to use any new embryonic stem cell lines it develops. In addition, use of stem cells derived from sources other than human embryos is not restricted.
Non-embryonic, adult cells are currently used to regenerate tissue such as skin and cartilage, said Robert Lanza, vice president of research and scientific development at Advanced Cell Technology, which is has its headquarters in California.
Mr Lanza said that his company is involved in “promising” research that uses several forms of embryonic and non-embryonic stem cells. However, he said, the lack of federal funding is “severely handicapping the effort to move forward with research” into critical areas of research at his company—such as dermal injuries, macular degeneration, and blood and cardiovascular diseases.
Some high ranking US politicians, bioethicists, and researchers say that the recent announcements that pluripotent stem cells can be developed from adult human skin cells (www.the-scientist.com/news/home/53272/) are timed to undermine the bills in the US Congress that would allow embryonic stem cell research.
An article in the Washington Post quoted the Democrats' caucus chairman, Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, as saying, “It is ironic that every time we vote on this legislation, all of a sudden there is a major scientific discovery that basically says, ‘You don't have to do stem cell research'” (www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/06/09/AR2007060901463.html).
His sentiments were echoed by Congresswoman Diana DeGette of Colorado and the bioethicist Arthur Caplan, who wrote in his online column that he found the timing of the new scientific announcements “convenient” (http://blog.bioethics.net/2007/06/art-caplan-on-msnbc-does-stem-cell.html).