28 Mar House may vote soon to relax stem-cell restrictions
A bill before the U.S. House of Representatives would decrease, but not eliminate, federal restrictions on stem cell research handed down by President Bush in mid-2001.
H.R. 810, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, was submitted recently by Republican Representative Michael Castle of Delaware and a long list of co-signers. The bill would amend the Public Health Service Act by making human embryonic stem cells eligible for use in any research conducted or supported by the Secretary of Health and Human Services if the cells meet all of the following criteria:
• The cells were derived from embryos that were donated from in-vitro fertilization clinics for the purpose of fertility treatment and were “in excess of the clinical need of the individuals seeking such treatment.”
• Before embryo donation was considered and after talking with the persons seeking fertility treatment, it was determined that the embryos would never be implanted in a woman and would be discarded.
• The people seeking fertility treatment donate the embryos with written informed consent without receiving money or any other compensation for their donation.
Researchers hope that embryonic stem cells, the “tabula rasa” cells that eventually change to become all of the body’s different types of cells, will one day lead scientists to cures for diseases such as Parkinson’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
UW-Madison Assistant Professor Clark Miller said the bill as it stands represents “a fairly significant shift” in policy for the federal government, which has operated under a compromise measure put forth by President Bush almost four years ago that stipulated that federal funding for stem cell research would be restricted to stem cells from cultures existing at that time.
That hasn’t stopped research from going forward on other, new stem cell lines, but it has stanched the flow of funds and whatever progress might have been made with federal funding.
“This would allow for funding to happen for those new stem cell lines,” said Miller, a professor at the La Follette School of Public Affairs who teaches and researches science and technology policy. “It allows new stem cell lines to be created using federal month. That is important because, really, the federal government is the primary supporter of basic research and developing in this country. The absence of federal funding is this area has made it very difficult to pursue this research at the level we’re pursuing other kinds of research.”
“This actually will make a very big difference, particularly here in Wisconsin, where we have a number of leading stem-cell research labs,” he added.
The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation holds the patents on five stem cell lines, and researchers led by UW-Madison’s James Thomson were the first to isolate human embryonic stem cells. While many detractors of Bush’s policy have worried out loud that other countries will take the lead in stem cell research, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently called for the state to pursue a multi-billion dollar stem cell funding effort, and some local researchers and politicians worry that such a push could lure top researchers to the West Coast.
“This will allow Wisconsin to play on much more equal footing to compete in the area of stem-cell research,” Miller said.
Miller said that most people recognize the need for ethical guidelines when it comes to stem-cell research, and that government funding of it will come with all the typical strings attached, including regulation that is much more difficult to enforce when the research is being done with private dollars.
“If the federal government is funding this research, it’s in a position to regulate the appropriate uses of this technology,” he said. “If it’s basically happening in privately funded labs, those [ethics] questions are much more difficult to oversee and regulate.”