Researchers believe that embryonic stem cells--which can develop into any of the many types of cells that make up the human body--show promise for treating a multitude of diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. But some lawmakers oppose their use because obtaining the stem cells requires destroying five-day-old embryos.
In Aug. 2001, President Bush announced that the federal government would only fund research on stem cell lines derived from embryos that had already been destroyed before that date--which number only 21 of the more than 300 stem cell lines that exist today. The new bill expands the number of available stem cell lines to allow funding for research on all lines derived from embryos originally slated for disposal at fertility clinics.
The Senate is expected to pass a similar bill next month. However, President Bush has already said that he will veto the legislation.
This year's bill is identical to one that passed both the House and Senate--and was then vetoed by the President--in 2005. But, according to a Thursday Washington Post article, both scientists and congressional strategists say that new scientific findings and the new Democratic congress mean the outcome of this year's legislative fight could be different.
But opponents of the bill are buoyed by recent research suggesting that stem cells taken from amniotic fluid--a noncontroversial source of the cells--could hold much of the same disease-treating promise as embryonic stem cells.
"Taxpayer-funded stem cell research must be carried out in an ethical manner in a way that respects the sanctity of human life. Fortunately, ethical stem cell alternatives continue to flourish in the scientific community," House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, told the Associated Press.
Still, the scientist who conducted the amniotic stem cell research says that he doesn't want his work used as a reason not to fund embryonic stem cell research.
"I understand that some may be interpreting my research as a substitute for the need to pursue other forms of regenerative medicine therapies," Dr. Anthony Atala wrote in a letter to bill co-sponsors Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), according to the Washington Post. "I disagree with that assertion... It is essential that National Institute[s] of Health-funded researchers are able to fully pursue embryonic stem cell research."
Meanwhile, proponents of the legislation say that public support for the research, and the new Congress, could make it difficult for Bush to keep vetoing stem cell legislation.
"This is not a 'one bill and you're out,' but a two-year time frame with potentially multiple legislative possibilities," a research supporter involved in Capitol Hill strategizing told the Washington Post. The research advocates plan to make it "as painful as possible" for the president to continue vetoing the legislation.