House Backs Stem Cell Research

For the second straight year, the U.S. House and Senate have each passed a measure to allow federally funded embryonic research. But the legislation is almost certain to be vetoed by President George W. Bush when he returns from a trip to Europe.

That seems highly unlikely, however. While this year's debate was waged on mostly well-trod ground, opponents cited stories in today's newspapers that reported successful experiments to obtain stem cells from mature tissues. Vowing to veto the legislation, Bush said before the vote that the "reports give us added hope that we may one day enjoy the potential benefits of embryonic stem cells without destroying human life." "Whenever lawmakers are debating stem cells, you can guarantee some study about adult stem cells will be released," said a frustrated Senate Democratic aide about the reports, in Nature and Cell Stem Cell (ScienceNOW, 6 June).

In the end, however, 37 Republicans joined the Democrats to pass the measure that would require the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to support the work, which would use embryos left over from fertility treatments. "We have an obligation to the people of this country," said Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), "to find real cures." Stem cell advocates say repeated votes by Congress--even if each will attract a veto--will help their eventual cause, and some hope Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) will follow through on hints that he might put money in the 2008 budget for NIH to support work using embryonic stem cells.

The House also took the first step today toward drafting that bill when an appropriations panel voted to add $750 million to the agency's current $29 billion budget. The appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education approved a 2.6% raise for NIH; more details are likely to come out next week when the full appropriations committee is expected to vote on the bill. Lobbyist Jon Retzlaff of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology calls the proposed increase a "nice start" but notes that it falls far short of what's needed to make up for "4 years of less-than-inflationary funding."

And last night, in a hastily scheduled House vote, 31 Democrats joined with most Republicans to defeat a legal ban on reproductive cloning, 213 to 204. The failed bill had been introduced without markup in committee-–"on the floor over night," groused Representative David Hobson (R-OH). Opponents said that the measure should have banned somatic cell nuclear transfer; it criminalized only the "implantation" of an embryo into a woman to create a human clone. "It's unfortunate so many members of the House of Representatives don't want to ban reproductive cloning," says ASCB's Wilson. But a number of biomedical advocates said the Democratic leadership erred in pushing for the votes. Representative Joe Baca (D-CA) blamed a "lack of communication, I guess. It was poor on our side to bring it up [for a vote] if we didn't have the votes." Although a number of states have banned reproductive cloning, the measure would put into place the first federal restriction.

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Posted in Policy, Biology