The U.S. Senate voted last night to make more human embryonic stem cell lines available to federally funded researchers. Along with a similar house vote in January (ScienceNOW, 11 January), the action marks the second time in less than 2 years that Congress has tried to ease tough restrictions President George W. Bush placed on stem cell research in 2001. Yet neither effort has enough votes to overcome a promised presidential veto.
Public support for embryonic stem cell research has been growing, and last month, National Institutes of Health Director Elias Zerhouni broke ranks with the president when he called on Congress to boost funding for the science (Science, 23 March 2007, p. 1646). Given the favorable climate, stem cell proponents were predicting a 66-vote win, just 1 shy of the 67 needed to overcome a presidential veto. Instead, only 63 senators voted for the bill, S. 5, with 34 opposing it. All but 2 Democrats supported the measure, and 17 Republicans, led by Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania), broke ranks to form the majority. The tally would have represented a gain of 3 votes from the 63-37 vote last July if three stem cell supporters including the ailing Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota) had not been absent (ScienceNOW, 18 July 2006).
The vote followed 20 hours of debate in which senators evoked the memories of deceased and ailing friends, relatives, and constituents. But, as with previous attempts, a new piece of research took some of the wind out of proponents' sails. During the January House vote, it was a report on so-called "pluripotent" stem cells obtained from amniotic fluid, which opponents seized upon as evidence that embryonic cells are not needed. This time it was an article by scientists in Brazil on a treatment for diabetes published in the 11 April Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Adult stem cells were used to help rebuild patients' immune systems that doctors had destroyed as part of the treatment. Even though the stem cells were only part of the treatment, Senator Sam Brownback (R-KA) and others cited the JAMA article to bolster opposition to S. 5.
At the same time it voted on S. 5, the Senate considered S. 30, a less controversial measure promoting the derivation of embryonic stem cells from "naturally dead" embryos. Such embryos are created by in vitro fertilization but are not implanted because they fail to remain viable. S. 30 also calls on the government to study the idea of an amniotic and placental stem cell bank. It passed 70 to 28.
Leo Furcht, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, hailed the vote on S. 5, saying it "sends a clear message that the American people are ready to ease the illogical and politically motivated restrictions on scientists." But Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, chastised the Democratic leadership for "political demagoguery in making claims for embryonic stem cell research that go far beyond any evidence."
The House is expected to adopt S. 5 in the next several weeks. But even if the bill passes--as is widely predicted--neither chamber of Congress will have the votes needed to challenge Bush's expected veto. Nevertheless, members of both chambers have vowed to keep bringing up measures to overcome the Bush policy, and sponsors of the legislation in the House and Senate have said their next tactic will be to attach provisions like those in S. 5 to health-related measures including appropriations bills.