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US embryo stem cell policy update

23 October 2007
Appeared in BioNews 430

A provision contained in a US Senate appropriations bill that would have expanded federal funding for human embryonic stem cell (ES) research has been dropped after President Bush threatened to veto the legislation. Senators Tom Harkin and Arlen Specter said that they were willing to 'compromise' and prepared to 'meet the president halfway'. The decision was made after the bill fell short of the two-thirds majority approval to make it veto proof.

Current restrictions on ES cell research in the US introduced by President Bush on 9 August 2001 mean that federal funding is not available for research on cell lines created before that date. The White House has repeatedly confirmed that Bush's stance on the issue is a moral one. There is no federal legislation, however, that stipulates that individual states cannot pass their own measures to provide funding for ES cell research, including SCNT - or 'therapeutic cloning'. Many states, including California and Missouri, have introduced legislation to pave the way for such research after offering the proposals to voters.

ES cell research remains a contentious issue in US politics, and supporters have expressed their desire for legislative changes both at federal and state level. Elias Zerhouni, the Director of the NIH, last week called for ES cell research to be funded. 'All avenues of research need to be pursued', said Zerhouni in an interview. 'We must continue research at all levels.' And in Michigan, where ES cell research is currently restricted, a group calling itself Michigan Stem Cell Research and Cures (MSCRC) is campaigning for a change in state law. Their concern is that the restrictions are stifling scientific enterprise and that this may be pushing scientists to conduct their research elsewhere. 'Other states are seeing embryonic stem cell research has major economic development potential...and are moving into this area in a big way because they smell jobs,' said David Waymire of the MSCRC. James Eliason, a scientific member of Wayne State University's TechTown, said that the restrictions act as a deterrent for research. 'The current law gives a negative impression to anybody who would want to move into the state with a high-tech life sciences company', he said, adding, 'Even if they weren't intending to work on stem cells, it can send a negative message about what's the next thing they might want to outlaw.'

On the other side of the divide, in states that have already approved research involving embryos, including SCNT, opponents of the research are campaigning to challenge such provisions. In Missouri, whose population voted for permissive regulation by a slight majority of 51 per cent, members of a coalition against Amendment 2, called Cures Without Cloning, have expressed their dissatisfaction with a $250,000 donation to Governor Matt Blunt's campaign from a group who support SCNT research, called Supporters of Health Research and Treatments. 'It's appalling that any candidate would take any money from an organization that supports the destruction of human embryos for research,' commented Sam Lee, of Campaign Life Missouri. 'These large amounts of money give the appearance that candidates and officeholders are for sale'.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, an appeal has been filed with the New Jersey Appeals Court over the decision from the lower court that the wording of a ballot proposal that asks voters to approve $450 over ten years for stem cell research was 'fair, balanced, and neutral'. The Legal Centre for the Defence of Life, acting on instructions from the New Jersey Right to Life organisation, asked that the proposal, already passed by both the House and Senate, be removed from the ballot because it was not explicit in that the funds would be used for SCNT. Marie Tasy, of the New Jersey Right to Life group, said that the referendum represented a 'stealth effort to force taxpayers to fund objectionable research'. Supporters, however, have highlighted the economic gains that could be made if the research was funded. 'This initiative represents a landmark economic investment that will create new jobs and spur new business ventures while bringing the potential of revolutionary lifesaving treatments', said NJ Governor Jon Corzine. The support of NJ Senate President, Richard Codey, centred upon the potential medical breakthroughs from such research. 'New Jersey will now be a part of the front line in the search for cures to some of our most obstinate afflictions', he said.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Michigan fights for stem cell cash
Detroit News |  22 October 2007
NIH Director Zerhouni Suggests Expansion of Embryonic Stem Cell Research
Kaiser Network |  17 October 2007
N.J. voters to decide spending $450M on stem cell work
Newsday.com |  17 October 2007
Sens. Harkin, Specter Remove Spending Bill Provision That Would Have Expanded Federal Funding for Embryonic Stem Cell Research
Kaiser Network |  18 October 2007
Stem-cell ballot language is fine
Kansas City Star |  17 October 2007
Stem-cell opponents decry hefty donation to Blunt
STL Today |  17 October 2007
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