In early June, Congress sent President Bush the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007 (S.5), approved by the Senate in April, which would allow federal funding for research using stem cells from human embryos created for fertility treatments and donated by patients. Bill advocates expressed disappointment and continued optimism in the face of President Bush's inevitable veto.
Congressional support of stem cell research and the expected presidential veto have become part of the routine push-pull politics. In January, the House passed the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007 (HR 3), but the Senate-approved legislation differs by requiring that the NIH fund alternative methods of creating embryonic stem cell lines without destroying embryos. The House, which had to approve the Senate's S. 5 version before it goes to the President, passed S. 5 (by a vote of 247-176) on June 7. [The earlier House vote on the original version of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, HR 3 passed by a similar margin in January.]
Mahendra Rao, MD, PhD, who resigned his post as chief of the section for stem cell biology at the National Institute on Aging last April, told Neurology Today it was “encouraging to see the margin of support.” However, the Senate result was one vote short of the two-thirds majority necessary to override a presidential veto.
Federal funding for embryonic stem cell research is limited to lines created on or before August 9, 2001. Last year President Bush vetoed a bill (HR 810), identical to HR 3, that would have allowed funding for new lines derived from embryos that would have been discarded by fertility clinics.
A THREAT OF ANOTHER VETO
The President has threatened to veto this new measure, as well. In a June 7 statement, he said: “If this bill were to become law, American taxpayers would for the first time in our history be compelled to support the deliberate destruction of human embryos. Crossing that line would be a grave mistake.”
According to Amy Kaloides, AAN grassroots program manager, if President Bush vetoes the legislation, as expected, it will be difficult to generate enough votes to override his action. Because S. 5 originated in the Senate, it would go to the Senate first for an override vote. If it passes, then it would move to the House, but it would die if the Senate fails to muster a two-thirds majority.
The majority of the American public continue to support stem cell research, Kaloides told Neurology Today. But, she added, it's a positive sign that Congressional support for the initiative continues to grow “We also had the NIH Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni say that our science is limited because of restricted access to stem cell lines. The will to expand life-saving research is out there; politics happens to be interfering. We are hopeful that won't always be the case.”
Dr. Rao, now vice president of research, stem cells, and regenerative medicine at Invitrogen, a Carlsbad, CA-based biotechnology company, told Neurology Today in an e-mail that he hopes President Bush will reconsider his veto threat and support the bill.
“When the Federal policy was first initiated the president emphasized that it was temporary and should be re-evaluated after input from scientists, policy advocates, ethicists, the American public, and when additional data became available. I believe that additional data clearly show widespread support for additional funding, clear evidence that the current approved lines are inadequate for translational work and that there is widespread support for the ethical use of embryos.”
Dr. Rao noted that the bill does not make anything that was previously illegal legal, but merely affirms that federal funds can be used for what is currently done under the law with private funds.
Support for stem cell research funding was one of the four issues Academy members took to Capitol Hill during the 5th Annual Neurology on the Hill on Mar. 13, and former AAN President Thomas R. Swift, MD, encouraged President Bush in a letter in April to sign S. 5. The AAN sent two action alerts to all US members in advance of the House vote on HR 3 in January and before the Senate vote on S.5 vote in April. Consequently, 282 AAN members sent 532 e-mails to Congress on this issue. The Academy is also a member of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research.