Frist Again at the Center of Stem Cell Fight

By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 3, 2005

On July 18, 2001, Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) stood on the Senate floor urging his colleagues to buck conservative orthodoxy and support federally funded research on embryonic stem cells. As the Senate's only physician, Frist made headlines -- and gave momentum to the controversial science -- with his endorsement.

The following month, however, President Bush announced a policy that was far more restrictive, limiting federal research to already existing embryonic stem cells, and Frist acquiesced.

A few weeks after Bush announced his policy, Frist said the differences between the two were minor because scientists at the National Institutes of Health had "informed the president that more than 60 cell lines exist and that this number is sufficient to provide ample opportunity to research the potential of embryonic stem cells."

Today, Frist is again at the center of the stem cell battle. Unlike four years ago, when he sought an influential role, the Senate majority leader has shied away from the issue, frustrating once-admiring researchers and patient advocates who now accuse him of exchanging sound medical thinking for with political calculations.

"We, as scientists, had great expectations for what he could do," said Mary Hendrix, president and scientific director of the Children's Memorial Research Center at Northwestern University. When she heard Frist's 2001 speech, Hendrix got "goose bumps" because the well-respected transplant surgeon had "put his credibility on the line."

Hendrix is puzzled and disappointed by what "appears to be a change in Senator Frist's position," she said in an interview. "I thought he was a staunch supporter."

As Congress begins its Fourth of July recess, activists on both sides of the stem cell divide are gearing up for what appears to be a fresh fight in the Senate, perhaps as early as the week lawmakers return.

On one side are scientists and patient groups who say the cells taken from days-old embryos hold enormous potential for treating a range of illnesses because they can grow into any type of cell or tissue in the body. Opponents object to the research because the process involves destroying the embryo.

When Bush announced his compromise in 2001, the White House said scientists would have more than 60 embryonic stem cell colonies, called "lines," to work on. But fewer than two dozen have materialized, reinvigorating the push to expand the policy.

In May, with 50 Republican votes, the House passed legislation that would permit federal research on tens of thousands of frozen embryos donated by couples at fertility clinics. Bush has threatened to veto the bill, placing additional pressure on Frist to stand by a policy that falls far short of the approach he envisioned four years ago.

"If he wants the Republican nomination, he may be worried that coming out for embryonic stem cell research funding would make conservatives angry, especially if it involves disagreeing with President Bush," said Harvard political scientist Michael J. Sandel. If stem cell legislation becomes Bush's first veto, "it would be a symbolic issue in the Republican primaries."

But if Frist is maneuvering to attract Republican primary voters in pursuit of the 2008 presidential nomination, he is doing so at the risk of angering loyal Tennessee supporters such as Anne Shockley.

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