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.
Opponents say it is immoral to destroy human embryos for research. They point to preliminary evidence that other kinds of cells, which can be obtained harmlessly from adults, show many of the same properties as embryonic cells.
Under Bush's restrictions, announced on Aug. 9, 2001, scientists may use federal funds to study only cells derived from embryos destroyed before that date. That has put off-limits the many new stem cell colonies created in private and foreign labs since then.
Frist, said spokeswoman Amy Call, is "working with a number of colleagues on both sides of this issue to see if we can bring this up in a thoughtful and productive manner."
Members of Congress and Hill watchers said they expect Frist to bring up H.R. 810 this summer as part of a package with at least two related bills that conservatives want. That would provide political cover for senators who support the measure -- as a majority do -- but are from conservative states.
One of those bills would require the NIH to help find noncontroversial sources of embryonic stem cells, such as embryos engineered to contain fatal defects, which could be ethically destroyed because they could not become babies.
Another bill that sources said may be included would ban the cultivation of human fetuses (embryos more than 8 weeks old) just for research, and the gestation of human fetuses in animals -- experiments that conservatives say are on some scientists' wish list.
Proponents of H.R. 810 say they could live with such bills, as long as they do not harbor surprises in the fine print. But they bristle at opponents' assertion that privately funded labs have made NIH funding unnecessary.
Philanthropic funding of stem cell work is growing. In addition to Kriegstein's program at UCSF, programs backed by tens of millions of dollars have recently been launched at Harvard and the University of California at Irvine. Project A.L.S., a patient group that focuses on nerve-destroying Lou Gehrig's disease, announced last week that it was opening a private research facility in New York.
Several states -- including Maryland, New Jersey, Connecticut and California -- have begun grant programs to support the field.
Still, said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), who helped shepherd House passage of H.R. 810: "Private funds and states cannot begin to match the basic science that NIH can generate with broader research guidelines."
DeGette said she knows of at least seven seats in play this November in which candidates' positions on stem cells are shaping up as significant political divides. "It's beginning to percolate up in the elections," she said.
Even if the Senate passes a stem cell package, H.R. 810 is unlikely to become law, both sides agree. The president has made clear his intention to veto it if it arrives on his desk, and an override appears out of reach in the House.
"We don't have to choose between science and ethics," White House spokesman Ken Lisaius said. "We can continue to pursue both."