House to Resume Stem Cell Debate

The Associated Press
Tuesday, January 9, 2007; 2:24 AM

WASHINGTON -- Round two of Congress' battle with President Bush over the morality of stem cell research opens this week, with opponents bolstered by a study that suggests stem cells can be extracted from pregnant women's amniotic fluid as well as from human embryos.

But opponents won't have much luck peeling off support from a bill to be debated in the House this week that would clear the way for expanding taxpayer-funded embryonic stem cell research, a co-sponsor of the bill predicted.

"We won't lose anyone who was going to support the bill," said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., one of her party's vote-counters in the House.

But, she said, "People who would have already opposed the (embryonic) stem cell bill will use this breakthrough as an excuse to vote no."

Bush and other opponents of government-paid embryonic stem cell research say the new research buttresses their case that science need not advance at the expense of budding human life. Embryonic stem cell research, they say, is immoral because the process of culling the stem cells kills the embryo.

In contrast, the research reported this week suggests that stem cells extracted harmlessly from the amniotic fluid that cushions a fetus in-utero hold much the same promise for disease-fighting as embryonic stem cells. Scientists hope that someday stem cells may be used against diseases such as for Lou Gehrig's, diabetes, Alzheimer's and cancer.

"We're talking about saving lives here," said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., an obstetrician and staunch opponent of embryonic stem cell research. "We don't have to split the nation on this if we've got an alternative."

Polls show Americans overwhelmingly support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. And scientists aren't sure that stem cells shed by a fetus and extracted from the surrounding fluid carry the same possibility for treatments and cures of diseases as those culled from embryos.

The scientific community says embryonic stem cells so far are backed by the most promising evidence that one day they might be used to grow replacements for damaged tissue, such as new insulin-producing cells for diabetics or new nerve connections to restore movement after spinal injury

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who is sponsoring the same bill in the Senate, called it cruel to raise expectations that stem cells derived from amniotic fluid carry the same promise as embryonic stem cells.

He said the report on the new research "offers no evidence that amniotic stem cells have as much potential as embryonic stem cells to differentiate into all other cells in the human body."

The report by researchers at Wake Forest and Harvard universities appears in the January edition of the journal Nature Biotechnology.

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