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Stem cells and politics in the United States

8 March 2004
By Juliet Tizzard
Director, Progress Educational Trust
Appeared in BioNews 248
Anyone who takes an interest in the law relating to embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research will know how difficult an issue this has been in the United States over the past few years. Since President Bush took office in 2001, ES cell research has started to show real potential for developing therapies for a range of common diseases. However, the Bush administration will go no further than permitting federally-funded researchers to use stem cell lines already in existence in August 2001.Opposition within the scientific community to the administration's stance on human embryonic stem cell research has been building up for some time. But now, as President Bush's first term draws to a close, some sections of American society seem to be losing patience with his conservative views on embryo research.

This week's BioNews reports on the work of Dr Douglas Melton and colleagues at Harvard University, who have derived 17 new embryonic stem cell lines in the laboratory and made them freely available to researchers around the world. This move has been seen as a gesture of defiance towards the Bush administration. The Harvard team used private money to fund their research, thereby side-stepping the restrictions placed upon scientists funded by the federal government.

Meanwhile, legislative activity at state level is fast creating a situation where the law regarding stem cell research varies dramatically from one state to the next. South Dakota has already banned all forms of cloning. Missouri and Kansas face legislative proposals that would have the same effect. Other states such as Massachusetts, New Jersey and California have passed legislation supporting embryonic stem cell research. The governor of New Jersey, James McGreevey, has even gone as far as to call for $6.5 million of state funding for ES cell research.

Of course, legal differences between states is nothing new. But the pace of change at state level must surely have caught the attention of the Bush administration. Alissa Johnson, senior policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures, told that 71 bills involving embryonic or fetal research were introduced last year, of which five were passed. Thirty-four bills have been carried over into this year and more than 25 new bills have been filed to date.

Meanwhile, at federal level, the issue of how to regulate ES cell research remains unresolved. After a bill banning all forms of human cloning (including the creation of cloned embryos for research) was passed in the House of Representatives, scientists feared that ES cell research in the US would be shut down for good. However, in 2002 and 2003, two pairs of competing bills (for and against therapeutic cloning), failed to come to a vote.

What are the stem cell researchers doing whilst this politicking goes on? Those with federal funding cannot use it to work on embryonic stem cell lines that have been created since August 2001. And so, they have three options. They can either make what progress they can on the stem cell lines approved by Bush (though these will never be suitable for clinical applications); they can look for private funds to support their work; or they can move to a country with a more supportive political climate. Dr Douglas Melton sought private funding because he 'just got fed up' with restrictions placed upon federally-funded ES cell research. How many more scientists will get 'fed up' and leave the US altogether?

29 April 2004 - by BioNews 
A letter signed by 206 cross-party members of the US House of Representatives has been sent to President Bush, asking him to change his policy on embryonic stem (ES) cell research. On 9 August 2001, the President issued an executive order limiting the availability of federal funds for ES cell...
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