Bill Frist, the US Senate Majority Leader, has added his support to legislation that would extend the provision of federal funding for human embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research in the US. Current policy, set by President Bush on 9 August 2001, only allows state funds to be used for research on ES cell lines that were created before that date.
Many scientists complain that these cell lines are less effective than more recently created lines, as they are contaminated with the mouse feeder cells used to grow them. The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act 2005 would, if passed, allow funding for scientists to conduct ES cell research on embryos left over from fertility treatments and donated for research purposes. The bill has already passed through the US House of Representatives, but seems to have stalled in the Senate.
Frist, a Republican, has previously been known to support Bush's policy and is anti-abortion. Although he says that his belief is that life begins at conception, he explained his change of heart, saying 'the limits put in place in 2001 will, over time, slow our ability to bring potential new treatments for certain diseases'. He added: 'Embryonic stem cell research should be encouraged and supported'.
Frist, who is a surgeon, is often 'looked to' by other Senators on issues to do with medicine. His support, as well as the fact that he has 'broken ranks' with other Republicans and the President may give the bill more chance of success. However, a vote on the Bill is not expected until at least September, as Congress has entered the August recess. Frist refused to bring the bill - or any of the other stem cell bills currently before the Senate - to a vote last week because he could not get other Senators to agree to vote on the bills without adding wrecking amendments. But, he said, 'I'm not going to give up on the stem cell issue because the research is hugely promising', adding that 'I hope that after we get back, we will be able to address the issue'.
Bush has threatened to veto the bill if it is passed. In response to Frist's announcement, Scott Maclellan, a White House spokesman, said that President Bush had not changed his mind on the issue: 'I think the President has made his position very clear. Nothing has changed in terms of his position', he said. A presidential veto can be overridden if there are 67 or more votes in favour of the bill - Senator Arlen Specter, one of the sponsors of the bill, says that at least 62 Senators have pledged their support.