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Signs of change in US stem cell policy?

13 November 2006
Appeared in BioNews 384

By Antony Blackburn-Starza:
There's a feeling of change in relation to embryonic stem (ES) cell research in the US following the mid-term elections, which saw the Democrats capturing both the Senate and the House of Representatives from the Republicans.

In the state of Missouri, where ES cell research was a contentious issue in the run up to the elections, voters elected Claire McCaskill as their Senator after she campaigned in favour for ES cell research. In a ballot vote, the state also approved an amendment to their constitution permitting ES cell research, which includes embryo cloning, by a narrow 51 per cent majority. The amendment will make it constitutional to clone embryos to be used in stem cell research but prohibits human reproductive cloning. Importantly, the change will not allow Missourian courts from ruling against ES cell research. The vote came as good news for stem cell research companies based in the state. The Stowers Institute for Medical Research, based in Missouri, now hopes to recruit prominent scientists who work with stem cells. They issued a statement saying that the initiative will enable the company to compete for prominent stem cell scientists on a global level.

Federally, now that the Democrats hold a majority in both the Senate and the House, other pro-stem cell states may now attempt to introduce legislation expanding federal funding for research. In July, President Bush vetoed the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which would have increased the types of stem cells that are eligible for funding. At the time, the House of Representatives lacked the two-thirds majority that is required to override a presidential veto. Even with the Republican losses, however, the current Democrat majority is probably too narrow for pro-stem cell legislation to gain the needed weight. However, now that US public support of stem cell research is increasing, Bush may be more restrained from exercising his veto again.

Nor is it likely that more funds will be available for ES cell research with Democratic control of the budget agenda. Nancy Pelosi, who is set to become the speaker of the House in January 2007, has promised to extend federal funds for more types of stem cell research than currently allowed in her first 100 hours of leadership. However, even though the Democrats will control the budget agenda, it does not necessarily mean that more funds will be available for stem-cell research, said Jon Rezlaff of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. 'You're still talking about huge expenses for the Iraq war and everything else', he pointed out.

Meanwhile, the Pluripotent Stem Cell Therapies Enhancement Act, which directs the National Institutes of Health to support ways of cultivating stem cells that do not destroy embryos, may get a second change in a so-called 'lame duck' session of Congress before it breaks for holidays. The bill has already been unanimously passed by the Senate last July but failed in the House. The Act is part of a number of science bills to be considered, but it is not considered very likely to be passed.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Antiabortion Activists Refocusing Strategies After Election Results; Washington Post Says Democratic-Controlled Congress Might Force Bush To Reconsider Stance on Embryonic Stem Cell Research
Kaiser Network |  9 November 2006
Science bills head to lame duck session
The Scientist |  9 November 2006
Stem-cell researchers welcome midterm results
New Scientist |  9 November 2006
US scientists weigh up election results
New Scientist |  9 November 2006
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