WASHINGTON - The Senate, which is getting back to business this week after its annual spring hiatus, is scheduled to take votes today on two bills related to embryonic stem cell research.
Both are likely to pass following floor action, but those fighting to overturn longstanding restrictions on federal funding - per an executive order that dates to 2001 - aren't likely to see any light at the end of the tunnel. The two pieces of legislation are aimed at expanding the number of cell lines eligible for such support, but they differ on the sources of stem cells and therefore seem destined for different fates.
"The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007," or S. 5, which is essentially the same bill President Bush vetoed last year, focuses on allowing cell lines created from embryos to be discarded by fertilization clinics to receive federal financing. On the other hand, a newer bill labeled S. 30 is written to make eligible pluripotent stem cell lines derived from embryos incapable of surviving in the womb or that died during fertility treatments but still contain viable stem cells. In other words, the embryos must have been developed naturally but irreversibly lost the capacity for integrated cellular division, growth and differentiation.
Critics of the latter insist it's not a tenable substitute for the former.
"There's no compromise," said Jonathan Moreno, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "Either you do embryonic stem cell research and you keep up with the rest of the world, or you don't. This is not an alternative."
He added that research on dead embryos already can be conducted with government backing, and that no stem cell biologist believes such stem cell lines measure up to those currently available from embryos. In addition, Moreno pointed out that it's not possible to determine when an embryo is dead, a statement echoed by attorney Steve Bent of Foley & Lardner LLP.
"This is why it's so difficult for some people to treat a blastocyst as a human being," he told BioWorld Today, "because it's almost impossible to gauge this sort of thing. That's an illustration of the fact that it doesn't bear much resemblance to human life."
Bent doesn't expect S. 30 to siphon votes from S. 5, a more heavily vetted bill by all counts. But the newer measure, put forth by Sens. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), is championed as a middle ground for those who oppose wider embryonic stem cell funding, namely the president. Called the "Hope Offered through Principled and Ethical Stem Cell Research (HOPE) Act," it also has attracted support from lawmakers expected to vote against S. 5, which Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) introduced at the beginning of the year.
Reports indicated that the President will back S. 30, Bent said, even though its language hadn't been widely circulated ahead of the vote. He called it "a cover" for lawmakers who want to appear to support new research.
"They're trying to find a techno fix to get around what the opposition perceives to be an intractable ethical problem," Moreno told BioWorld Today, "but it's not an ethical problem that the American people tend to recognize, as such. It's really interest group politics."
Numerous public polls have demonstrated widespread support for broader federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.
Still, Bush has signaled that he will again veto the more divisive bill, and its supporters don't appear to have enough votes for an override. The Senate requires 67, but only 66 have been accounted for, according to past reports, and 290 are needed in the House of Representatives. Some S. 5 backers have predicted that they will get 67 Senate votes, but reaching the requisite threshold in the lower chamber is a taller order. Companion legislation, sponsored by Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Mike Castle (R-Del.), mustered 253 yea votes at the beginning of the year. (See BioWorld Today, Jan. 16, 2007.)
Bent, who called today's vote "a temperature-taking exercise," predicted only 61 or 62 positive votes for S. 5. Moreno said there is no harm in S. 30, and predicted it would pass with more votes than S. 5. But because Reid's bill "is the only one that actually provides hope," he stressed the importance of continuing to fight on its behalf for a number of reasons, such as stemming the loss of research to foreign countries.
"We've seen proposal after proposal after proposal that somebody thinks is a really cool idea," Moreno said, "but is in the realm of science fiction rather than science."
The entire scenario is reminiscent of that which played out last summer, when a compromise bill was included in the Senate's debate on embryonic stem cell legislation. Written to authorize federal funds for research into obtaining pluripotent stem cells without destroying embryos through methods such as altered nuclear transfer, it passed in the Senate but not the House. A third stem cell-related bill passed unanimously in both chambers to prohibit research on embryos from fetal farms where they could be created specifically for research and was signed into law.
As a result of the restrictive research environment, Moreno said, the broader field of regenerative medicine has moved slowly. Investors generally have stayed away from embryonic stem cells, and while certain states have funding in place, the resulting state-by-state regulations are creating a patchwork of oversight that hinders collaboration. However, S. 5 provides uniform ethical oversight.
Other stem cell-related bills, such as those related to cloning and somatic cell nuclear transfer, are not part of today's debate.