Darn Cells. Dividing Yet Again!

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By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 10, 2007

Coincidence or conspiracy? You be the judge.

Thursday, June 7. After months of intense lobbying by scientists and patient advocacy groups, the House is ready to vote on legislation that would loosen President Bush's restrictions on the use of human embryos in stem cell research. But that very morning, the lead story in every major newspaper is about research just published in a British journal that shows stem cells can be made from ordinary skin cells.

The work was in mice, but the take-home message that suffuses Capitol Hill is that there is no need to experiment on embryos after all.

If that doesn't sound suspicious, consider this:

Monday, Jan. 8. After months of intense lobbying by scientists and patient advocacy groups, Congress is ready to vote on legislation that would loosen Bush's restrictions on stem cell research. But that very morning, newspapers are touting new research just published in a British journal suggesting that stem cells can be made from easily obtained placenta cells. No need for embryos after all!

Is there a plot afoot?

Lots of lobbyists, members of Congress and even a few scientists are starting to think so.

"It is ironic that every time we vote on this legislation, all of a sudden there is a major scientific discovery that basically says, 'You don't have to do stem cell research,' " Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) sputtered on the House floor on Thursday. "I find it very interesting that every time we bring this bill up there is a new scientific breakthrough," echoed Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), lead sponsor of the embryo access bill. Her emphasis on the word "interesting" clearly implies something more than mere interest.

"Convenient timing for those who oppose embryonic stem cell research, isn't it?" added University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan in an online column. (The bill passed easily, but not with a margin large enough to override Bush's promised veto.)

Even some scientists, those exemplars of rationality, couldn't help but wonder if somebody, somewhere, was -- if not out to get them -- at least taking some pleasure in irritating them.

"I don't think this is the most sensitive timing for Nature to release these papers," said Harvard stem cell scientist Kevin Eggan, the lead author of one of the articles that appeared in the London-based journal on Thursday.

Twice in six months. What are the odds?


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