A new bill, designed to expand funding for embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research, has been introduced to both chambers of the US federal legislature. Last Wednesday, bill HR810, also known as the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, was put forward by a bipartisan group of members of the US Senate and House of Representatives, who said they would 'do whatever it takes' to get the bill passed into law. The new bill would allow federally-funded researchers to derive ES cells from embryos left over from fertility treatments, if the patients agree to donate them for research. It would not allow federal funds to be used to create embryos by cloning or any other means.
Currently, federally-funded ES cell researchers in the US are only able to work on ES cell lines that were already in existence on 9 August 2001. On that day, President George Bush announced his ES cell policy: that federal money would not be available for research that would involve the destruction of further embryos. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) predicted a total number of 78 such stem cell lines in August 2001, although in March 2004 it clarified the actual number was somewhere between 15 and 19, and that in the 'best case scenario', only 23 of the named cell lines will ever be viable. Since 2001, federal scientists and researchers have complained that the cell lines available to them are unsatisfactory, as they were grown using mouse 'feeder' cells, making them unsuitable for use in humans - a fact confirmed recently by researchers from University of California, San Diego, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
The main sponsors of the new bill, Republican Mike Castle and Democrat Dianne DeGette, along with other members of Congress who represent 'a wide spectrum of political sensibilities', called for Congress to support the legislation. If passed, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act would loosen the federal funding restrictions placed on ES cell research by Bush. Castle and DeGette introduced a similar bill last year, which would have allowed federal funds to be used for ES cell research on embryos left over from fertility treatments and 'slated to be discarded as medical waste'. This, however, was blocked by Republican leaders in the House. The new bill has 156 co-sponsors, compared with only 25 for the 2004 attempt, leading Castle to say that he is 'optimistic' about its passage.
Republican Senator Orrin Hatch is the chief sponsor of the Senate version of the bill. Hatch has long been on the side favouring the advancement of ES cell research in the US, despite being known for his anti-abortion views. In 2001, he said that ES cell research raises 'fundamentally different' questions to abortion, adding that it is 'consistent with bedrock pro-life, pro-family values'. In support of the new Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, he said that it would 'improve the ability of our scientists to unleash the promise of stem cell research by increasing both the quantity and quality of stem cell lines available for federally funded research'. Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein, a co-sponsor of the bill in the Senate, pointed out that if ' the federal government doesn't act, we're going to have a patchwork of state laws, and that's already happening'.
According to the Washington Post, Senator Sam Brownback, an opponent of ES cell research, refused to comment on the bill because he was still studying its language. But a spokesperson for the White House said that Bush's position on federal funding for ES cell research is 'well-known' and remains 'unchanged'. Nothing was said, however, about whether President Bush would veto the legislation if it is approved by Congress.