Proponents Press Senate on Stem Cell Research Measure

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 24, 2006

A full year after the House passed legislation that would loosen President Bush's restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research, the Senate is coming under intense pressure to tackle the controversial bill -- in the awkward new context of an election year.

The legislation, which Bush has repeatedly threatened to veto, would allow the National Institutes of Health to fund research on human embryos slated for destruction at fertility clinics. It is backed by science and patient-advocacy groups, and was endorsed by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) last summer, when momentum behind the research was at a peak.

But the political calculus around stem cells has changed in unexpected ways since then, raising questions about how Frist can fulfill his promises to bring the bill to a vote without weakening his appeal to conservatives as he considers a 2008 presidential run.

Opponents of the research note that its most promising advances, reported last year from South Korea, were recently found to have been faked -- a revelation that has stoked critics' claims that the medical potential of embryonic cells has long been hyped.

Also unexpected a year ago was the recent blossoming of independently funded embryonic stem cell research programs at universities.

"We're seeing private funding come up, and, of course, states have stepped up in various ways," said David Prentice, a senior fellow with the conservative Family Research Council, which opposes the House bill. "I don't know that there is a big need for a huge infusion of NIH money."

But proponents -- including several congressional leaders and ailing patients who plan a news event this morning to mark the first anniversary of the House bill's passage -- are expressing impatience with Frist's repeated delays.

They point to new polling data indicating that a greater majority of Americans than ever, 72 percent, support the research -- a finding that candidates, they say, cannot afford to ignore.

They contend that without the full support of the federal research enterprise, the field of regenerative medicine in the United States will remain stunted and other countries will pull ahead.

And they say that as long as the research is relegated to the private sector, it will remain free of federal oversight and ethics rules.

"The South Korean debacle has underscored the need for national, even global, ethical standards, but there is a terrible leadership vacuum with regard to stem cell science in the United States," said Arnold Kriegstein, director of the Institute of Regeneration Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco.

Embryonic stem cells, derived from days-old human embryos, can turn into virtually any kind of cell and show promise as a way to replace damaged tissues or organs.

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