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Facing certain veto by Bush, Senate renews debate on stem-cell research

Legislators say the U.S. is hampered by curbs on federal funding.

April 11, 2007|Nicole Gaouette | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In 2003, federal officials inspected California-based Advanced Cell Technology. They rummaged through refrigerators, scrutinized labs and checked microscopes to make sure the firm wasn't using federally funded equipment to work on embryonic stem cells.

Similar scenes have played out across the U.S. since President Bush issued an executive order banning federally funded research on embryonic stem cells created after 2001.

The president and other religious conservatives believe such research is unethical. Scientists like those at Advanced Cell Technology, meanwhile, say that the limitation has hampered the search for cures and put them at a competitive disadvantage.

That debate played out on the floor Tuesday as the Senate began two days of debate on stem-cell research, the latest battleground on which Democrats are challenging the president.

A bipartisan Senate bill that would make more stem-cell lines available to scientists, with certain limits, is expected to pass with broad support and face a veto from Bush, who rejected a similar bill last year.

"He would veto again, if it were to pass," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. "It is incumbent upon the president to balance both the moral and the ethical boundaries for new scientific research."

Citing strong public support for the bill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) noted Tuesday that stem-cell research is thought to hold the potential to cure diseases that afflict about 100 million Americans, including cancer, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injuries, heart disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

"We must take on this urgent cause once again," Reid said, referring to Bush's previous veto. "We will fight to see that it becomes law."

The House passed a similar bill in January, 253 to 174, well short of the two-thirds majority needed to overturn a presidential veto.

Some senators who spoke out against embryonic stem-cell research noted that adult stem cells offer cures to a host of chronic diseases without crossing the "moral line" of using embryonic cells.

Legislators who support adult stem-cell research, including presidential hopeful Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), back a second bill that the White House supports to expand research on stem-cell lines from embryonic cells that are "dead," or no longer able to grow.

"Human life has immeasurable value and it is wrong to use any human being as a means to an end," Brownback said. "We want to help and treat people who have medical conditions, but we must not trample another human to achieve that end."

Other senators argued that President Bush's executive order has constrained American scientists and research institutions, hurt their international standing and possibly delayed the discovery of cures.

The federal government spent $200.3 million in fiscal 2006 for adult stem-cell research; that year, $38.3 million went to embryonic stem-cell research.

The president's policy had made 78 embryonic stem-cell lines available for use, but only 21 turned out to be usable and those are contaminated.

"Federal stem-cell research is effectively hobbled. It is handcuffed. It cannot go forward," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a sponsor of the bill.

The National Institutes of Health estimate that there are 400 stem-cell lines available worldwide for research.

California is among the states that have taken the initiative on funding, committing $3 billion over 10 to 12 years for research. In February, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine awarded $45 million to 72 embryonic stem-cell projects in the state.

New York is expected to commit $1 billion over 10 years for stem-cell research, and New Jersey, Maryland and Wisconsin are also planning funding.

But federal funding restrictions have a dampening effect, researchers say, by limiting the ability of graduate students to work in the field, sending U.S. scientists overseas to less restrictive research environments and diverting private funds from research to infrastructure costs.

And it has curbed collaboration.

William Caldwell IV, chief executive officer of Advanced Cell Technology, estimates that there are more than 140 significant stem-cell lines available for privately funded research.

"But that causes some concern when you're working with collaborators who are federally funded," Caldwell said.

"You have to totally divide your research in the stem-cell field and any other research funded by the federal government," Caldwell continued. "That's why most facilities just would not get involved."

Feinstein cited the case of Susan Fisher, a biologist at UC San Francisco who worked for two years to cultivate stem-cell lines in a privately funded makeshift lab.

But when the electricity went out, Fisher was unable to move her lines into industrial-capacity freezers because they were bought with federal funds, and in minutes her stem-cell lines had melted and were gone.

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