A new US bill that proposes funding research into alternatives to human embryonic stem (ES) cells is gaining support, and could take votes away from bill HR810, which proposes expanding federal funding for ES cell research. The new bill, HR3144 - introduced by Republican Senator Roscoe Bartlett - proposes $15 million a year for the development of ES cell alternatives, starting in 2006. However, supporters of bill HR810, also known as the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, have criticised the measure as potentially diverting funds away from ES cell research.
President Bush's policy on human ES cell research permits federally funded scientists to carry out research on cell lines created before 9 August 2001, but researchers have complained that this policy leaves only less effective cell lines for them to work on. A bill loosening the restrictions was passed by the House of Representatives in May, by 238 votes to 194. If passed by the Senate, the bill would allow federal funds to be used for research on new ES cell lines derived from embryos left over from fertility treatments and voluntarily donated by patients. However, President Bush has vowed to veto the bill, unless it is passed with the minimum two-thirds majority required to override such a veto.
Supporters of bill HR810 had expressed confidence that they would achieve the necessary majority, but the measure now faces another challenge. According to the Washington Post, several senators have hinted that they might vote for Bartlett's bill instead. The new bill proposes further research into a number of as yet untried techniques for generating 'pluripotent' cells, capable of growing into almost any type of body tissue. The alternative approaches - which include a method called 'altered nuclear transfer' proposed by US bioethicist William Hurlbut - were put forward in a recent report published by the President's Council on Bioethics.
The new bill has been criticised by supporters of ES cell research, who say it could divert efforts away from work that has already shown promise for treating several diseases. 'To think that resources could be diverted to these ideas and theories rather than the science going on in the lab right now would be truly catastrophic', said Bernard Siegel, head of the Genetics Policy Institute, an advocacy group for ES cell research. He also said that Bartlett's bill should not be a political safety net for anyone, adding 'this research is too important to patients'. Embryo stem cell researcher Irving Weissman agreed, saying that the new approaches could be 'very valuable' if they worked, but added 'don't tell me we should stop doing research until we find out, because people's lives are at stake'.
Up to five other bills relating to stem cell research could now be considered alongside bill HR810, including one that would promote the banking of umbilical cord blood stem cells. Two of the measures are backed by Senator Sam Brownback, a staunch opponent of ES cell research. He says that 'this is exactly what the Senate should do: let's have a set of votes on the whole range of issues'. Meanwhile, actor Michael J Fox, who has Parkinson's disease, has urged George Bush to drop his opposition to ES cell research. 'He has an opportunity to do something fantastic for the world', Fox said last week, calling bill HR810 'a pro-living bill'.