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Expanded Stem Cell Research in Danger

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This week the United States Senate will take up Senate Bill 5 (S.5), legislation to lift the arbitrary restrictions imposed by President Bush that have throttled research funding for human embryonic stem cells. S.5, referred to as the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, is the modified senate version of the Castle-DeGette House Bill aimed at allowing federal funding while utilizing excess IVF embryos. This is a new version of the bill passed last session by both house and senate, but was then vetoed by Bush.

Another bill, S. 30, introduced by Senator Norm Coleman, R-Minn. and co-sponsored by Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) will be voted on after S. 5. The Coleman-Isakson bill is a Trojan Horse bill which will kill any federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research utilizing excess IVF embryos or any funding for the derivation of stem cell lines utilizing SCNT technology. Ironically, the short title of S. 30 is the "Hope Act." For the millions of Americans suffering from disorders potentially curable from the future application of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research, this act represents anything but hope.

S. 30 directs the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to prioritize the alternative methods of securing embryonic stem cells utilizing the methods described in a widely criticized White Paper of the President's Council of Bioethics, "Alternative Sources of Pluripotent Stem Cells." Indeed, Council member, Dr. Michael Gazzaniga, expressed his disgust with that report calling it a "diversion from the simple task at hand which is to move forward with the established laboratory techniques that are already grounded on a clear ethical basis for studying embryonic stem cell research and biomedical cloning."

However, the real danger presented by S. 30 is that this act would effectively install the prohibitions against federal funding for hESC research found in the so-called Dickey amendment of 1995. Here are the clauses of S. 30 which would codify the intent of the Dickey Amendment. "In general, the Secretary shall conduct and support basic and applied research to develop techniques for the isolation, derivation, production, or testing of stem cells... provided that the isolation, derivation, production, or testing of such cells will not involve (1) the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes; or (2) the destruction or discarding of, or risk of injury to, a human embryo or embryos other than those that are naturally dead."

The Coleman-Isakson bill is more than just a dangerous distraction. It is a political fig leaf designed to allow stem cell opponents to appear as if they are supporters. In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Isakson said, "It (the bill) gives an expansion of stem cell research and avoids the veto. If you can thread that needle and advance stem cell research you ought to do it."

Passage of S.30 would, in effect, negate any benefit from the passage of S. 5. Those lawmakers who support the vision of regenerative medicine and the potential of the power of human embryonic stem cell research should oppose Senate Bill 30. It is a bill detrimental to the advancement of human embryonic stem cell research and to the quest to cure human suffering and disease. It is a poison pill not only to hESC research, but to SCNT (somatic cell nuclear transfer). It is an attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of America by offering a viable "alternatives" bill. This alternative research bill is being offered as part of a packaged compromise to insure the passage of S.5. This is far from a compromise; it is total surrender to a theocratic interpretation of science which, if endorsed, would be highly detrimental to the nation's well being.

Of historical note, a similar ploy was attempted in the last legislative session through the attempted passage of a bill introduced in the Senate by Rick Santorum and Arlen Specter, S. 2754. This bill, entitled Alternative Pluripotent Stem Cell Therapies Enhancement Act, was unwittingly passed by the Senate 100 to 0. It was ironically killed in the house by an overzealous and unsophisticated House leadership which overlooked the poison pill clauses in the back portion of the bill.

Hyperlinks:
S.5: http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d110:s.00005:
S.30: http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d110:s.00030:
Dickey Amendment: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dickey_Amendment


Ralph Dittman, MD, MPH