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Stem Cell Research Could Make Miracles Happen

Today the Senate is poised to vote on stem cell research, which could benefit victims of AIDS and other diseases. But will Bush just veto it later?
 
 
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Stem cell research "could lead to treatments that save millions of lives and improve the quality-of-life for millions more." In fact, the benefits are already evident. Two weeks ago, scientists were able to transform embryonic stem cells "into immune cells known as T-cells -- offering a way to restore immune systems ravaged by AIDS and other diseases," and last month, "a team at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore transplanted stem cells from mouse embryos into paralyzed rats and helped them walk again." Today, the Senate will begin debate on H.R. 810 (the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act), the best chance for our country to vigorously pursue research that scientists believe could revolutionize modern medicine. Make sure your senator supports H.R. 810.

The facts about H.R. 810
H.R. 810 " would override rules put in place by Bush five years ago that restrict federal funding to research on only those embryonic stem cells that were in existence as of August 2001." Under the new rules, the government could "pay for studies on stem cell colonies, or lines, derived from embryos that are in cold storage at fertility clinics and scheduled for destruction." The act maintains the federal ban on funding for the destruction of human embryos, and includes ethical guidelines that are " tighter than those under the President’s policy," according to the Parkinson's Action Network. "In fact, some of the 21 stem cell lines that are currently eligible for stem cell research might not meet the strict guidelines in H.R. 810." The legislation was passed overwhelmingly by the House of Representatives last May.

Sham bills cover anti-stem cell senators
Two other bills nominally related to stem cell research will be voted on this week. The Fetus Farming Prohibition Act would ban the development of embryos solely for use in research, and the Alternative Pluripotent Stem Cell Therapies Enhancement Act promotes research using stem cells not derived from embryos. The bills are harmless but scientifically meaningless and " will not make substantive changes in policy." The National Institutes of Health, "which doles out federal research dollars, already has the authority to do what the bill boosting stem-cell research without embryonic cells purports to do," while "the bill outlawing the practice of 'fetal farming' is not needed, scientists say, since researchers do not use such methods to generate cells."

The true function of the bills is to provide cover to right-wing senators voting against embryonic research that is favored by 67 percent of Americans, mostly irrespective of sex, race, age, political affiliation and religion. Conservative lawmakers "acknowledged that the alternate measures...are calculated in part to give [conservatives], including the president, something to support," and "hope that passing something dealing with stem cells will provide election-year insulation against charges" that they are anti-science.

President Bush is expected to cast the first veto of his presidency if the Senate passes H.R. 810, and chances are low there will be enough votes to overturn it. " The president is emphatic about this," senior advisor Karl Rove told the Denver Post recently. Rove's comment recalled Bush's remarks shortly after he announced his restrictions on embryonic stem cell research in August 2001: “I laid out the policy I think is right for America. And I’m not going to change my mind." Indeed, Bush's mind hasn't changed, even though the facts have. Bush originally justified his position by claiming there were "more than 60" stem cell lines for researchers to work with; now we know that " many if not all of the...lines are now contaminated and unusable" because they were developed using mouse cells. (Bush's restrictions are in fact "driving scientists to seek out cells from privately funded programs," whose stem cell lines are newer, grow faster, and are sometimes provided for free.)

Last week, Bush rejected an offer to meet with the House co-sponsors of H.R. 810, Reps. Diana DeGette (D-CO) and Mike Castle (R-DE), to discuss the issue and reach a sensible compromise. Castle says he intended to tell Bush that the embryos funded by H.R. 810 "are blastocysts, created for the purposes of in vitro fertilization...which are spare or in excess of clinical need and in every single case are slated for medical waste. In keeping with your principles, the 'life and death' decision has been made -- the donors have decided to discard these embryos and they will be discarded."

Opponents of embryonic stem cell research frequently cite David Prentice, “a scientist with the conservative Family Research Council," who claims scientific papers prove that adult stem cell lines could be useful treatments "for at least 65 diseases." Prentice’s research is used to argue that enhanced embryonic stem cell research is unnecessary. On June 30, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) -- one of the leading opponents of embryonic stem cell research, and sponsor of the "fetus farming" act -- said "we have derived over 70 peer-reviewed and published medical treatments from adult stem cell research."

It’s not true. On Friday, " in one of the more incendiary volleys" of the recent stem cell debate, three stem cell experts published a letter in the journal Science debunking Prentice’s claim, claiming he "not only misrepresents existing adult stem cell treatments but also frequently distorts the nature and content of the references he cites. ... By promoting the falsehood that adult stem cell treatments are already in general use for 65 diseases and injuries, Prentice and those who repeat his claims mislead laypeople and cruelly deceive patients." Only 9 of the 65 examples cited by Prentice hold up to scrutiny. For example, “a study cited by Prentice as evidence that adult stem cells can help patients with testicular cancer is in fact a study that evaluates methods of isolating adult stem cells.” As a group of 80 Nobel laureates stated in a letter to President Bush last year, “current evidence suggests that adult stem cells have markedly restricted differentiation potential.”