California may now be a haven for stem-cell research, but the federal government is still debating the legality of some aspects of the science.
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) and Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Florida) have drafted bills that would outlaw therapeutic cloning -- a technique scientists believe could be key to turning stem-cell research into cures and treatments, but which also comes with ethical concerns.
Weldon's bill has cleared the House, but Brownback's Senate version has languished since 2001.
With an infusion of Republicans in the Senate, the bill may be closer to passing. Most of the six new Republican senators will likely vote in favor of the bill. However, Sen.-elect Richard Burr (R-North Carolina) has spoken out in favor of embryonic stem-cell research. And the bill has also received surprising opposition from Republicans, including Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania). Such departures will likely leave the bill short of a majority, let alone the 60 votes the bill would need to avoid filibuster.
"The question is whether the Democrats and stem-cell supporters among Republicans can still hang tough," said R. Alta Charo, professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin Law and Medical Schools.
The other question is whether filibustering the bill will be a priority for its opponents at a time when protesting Supreme Court appointments might overshadow therapeutic cloning.
Therapeutic cloning, also called somatic cell nuclear transfer, would not lead to the birth of a human clone. Rather, researchers extract stem cells from a several-days-old clone, which destroys the cloned embryo. Opponents have at least two problems with the technology. They say it's unethical to kill the embryo, which they believe deserves the same rights as any walking, talking human. And, they say, it's a slippery slope toward women carrying clones to term.
Brownback's and Weldon's legislation would outlaw therapeutic cloning in the United States. The bills would also ban importation of any medical products created using the technology in other countries. Punishment would be up to 10 years in prison and a $1 million fine.
The international cloning landscape might influence Congress, said Nigel Cameron, president of the Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future at the Chicago-Kent College of Law. Countries including Canada and France banned all forms of cloning earlier this year, but the moves have not been reported widely in the press. The United Nations has also debated the subject for the past few years, also with little press attention.
Scientists want to study embryonic stem cells because they are the precursor to every type of cell in the human body. One way to obtain stem cells is from couples who donate extra embryos after in vitro fertilization. But cloning embryos to get stem cells affords the opportunity to study the development of specific diseases.
For example, researchers can extract stem cells from a clone created using a skin cell from someone with multiple sclerosis. They would insert the skin cell into an egg whose nucleus had been removed. When the embryo grew to about 100 cells, scientists would remove stem cells, then coax them to develop into nerve cells that will develop the disease. Watching multiple sclerosis develop from the earliest stages could help researchers find a way to stop the disease's progress.
Therapeutic cloning might also provide a genetically identical supply of replacement cells for patients with diseases including Parkinson's, diabetes or spinal cord injury.
Scientists working with stem cells are relying on the Republicans who broke from their party to oppose the Brownback bill to stand their ground.
"People like Orrin Hatch have such high integrity that they're not going to change their minds just because this president puts pressure on them," said Irv Weissman, director of the Stem Cell Institute at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
Some even hope that the passage of Proposition 71, which mandates $3 billion for stem-cell research in California over the next 10 years (the federal government spent just $25 million last year), will encourage President Bush to change his embryonic stem-cell policy, which limits federal funding on embryonic stem cells to 22 lines approved by the NIH.
"(Proposition 71) is quite an important signal, which hopefully people in Washington will see and recognize," said Rudolf Jaenisch, a researcher at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and a biology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
If the president changed his position, he wouldn't have a lot to lose since he has no more elections to win. Still, some doubt he'll budge.
"Bush is entirely willing to let patients die rather than abandon his symbolic acts of respect for embryos (symbolic because funding does not affect the number of embryos destroyed each year)," said Charo, the University of Wisconsin professor, referring to the fact that in vitro fertilization clinics often discard embryos not used by couples.
"He won't change the policy," Weissman said. "He's been very clear. I wish he would for the first time listen to both sides of the issue, because he's never done that."
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