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US Senate passes stem cell bill

July 19, 2006 By Heidi Ledford This article courtesy of Nature News.

President will probably veto expanded funding for embryonic research.

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The US Senate has passed a bill that aims to expand the scope of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

The bill, named HR 810, would allow federal funding agencies to support the development of new embryonic stem cell lines derived from unused frozen embryos created by in-vitro fertilization treatments. That's a radical departure from the current rules in the United States, which allow federal funds to be used only on projects that work with a limited number of existing stem cell lines.

The Senate passed the bill by 63 votes to 37, a tally that was met with audible gasps and a smattering of applause from the visitors' gallery. But the bill, which was also passed by the House of Representatives in May, will probably die at the hands of President Bush, who has repeatedly said he will veto any such law.

Neither the Senate nor the House of Representatives is expected to muster the 2/3 majority required to override the president. The House would need an additional 50 'yes' votes from its 435 members, and observers expect that winning an additional 4 votes in the Senate is unlikely.

Nevertheless, activists in favour of stem cell research responded jubilantly to the Senate vote. "We're ecstatic," says Sean Tipton, a spokesman for the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, an organization that lobbies for such research. "If anybody had tried to bet at the start of this Congress that we would pass this bill through two chambers, nobody would have taken that bet."

Public support

If this bill were to pass, it would hasten the day when those cell replacement therapies arrive.
Arnold Kriegstein
University of California, San Francisco
The shift in the political climate is probably fuelled by the upcoming election season. Most Americans support stem cell research, and so opponents of the bill could find themselves vulnerable to attack this autumn.

During the two-day Senate debate, senators on both sides of the issue related emotional tales of family, friends and constituents suffering from diseases or spinal injuries that may, theoretically, be treatable using stem cells.

Opponents of HR 810 insisted that they were not against stem cell research in general but favoured the development of adult stem cell and cord blood therapies over the use of embryonic stem cells.

Republican senator Sam Brownback of Kansas claimed that adult stem cells have been successfully used in over 60 therapies in humans, whereas embryonic stem cells have been successfully used only once. And that one success, Brownback noted, was in rats, not humans. "It seems like there's been a media blackout of the success of adult stem cells and this rat is getting all the attention," said Brownback during the Senate debates.

But Brownback's assertions have attracted their own media attention. In a letter to Science published online last week1, three scientists reported that they could find evidence for only nine of the 60-plus adult stem cell treatments that Brownback referred to.

Early days

"It's not a surprise that there are not therapies from embryonic stem cell research yet," says Arnold Kriegstein, current director of the developmental and stem cell biology programme in at the University of California, San Francisco. "It'll take a while before one is able to regenerate other tissues from these cells. Although it's difficult to predict a timetable for any of that, if this bill were to pass, it would hasten the day when those cell replacement therapies arrive."

If Bush vetoes HR 810, development of new embryonic stem cell lines in the US will continue to depend on private or state funding says Zach Hall, president of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine.

At present there is quite a lot of money available from such non-federal sources: California, for example, has dedicated about US$3 billion to stem cell research over the next decade. "The problem with the private money is that it won't continue at this rate for an indefinite period," says Hall. "So you need federal or other funding to come in."

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References

  1. Smith S., et al. Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1129987 (2006).

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