Medical Device Daily Washington Writer

WASHINGTON – As many await Senate action on a bill that would expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania) continued to push for an alternative option: pluripotent stem cells created without destroying human embryos.

At a briefing held at the Capitol last Thursday, he extolled the virtues of the so-called embryonic-like stem cells and spoke of the common ground this bill has with more divisive proposals related to embryonic stem cells.

“I think we have an opportunity to present some ideas in an area where there has been a lot of heat, a lot of concern here in the United States, and a lot of division,” Santorum said, later adding his ambitions for moving forward “in a way that is both moral and ethical, as well as producing optimistic horizons from the scientific research perspective.”

He is the sponsor of legislation supporting such research, the Alternative Pluripotent Stem Cell Therapies Enhancement Act, which was introduced last month. Labeled S.2754, it would amend the Public Health Service Act to require the National Institutes of Health to conduct and support research to develop techniques for the isolation, derivation, production or testing of stem cells that have pluripotent or embryonic-like qualities. The bill authorizes funding for three years, beginning in the coming fiscal year.

While the research is generally viewed as fairly non-controversial, the proposed measure is a bit more charged given that it could thwart other efforts to broaden government backing for the more controversial embryonic stem cells. In contrast, the Santorum measure is specifically written against being construed to affect any policy, guideline or regulation regarding embryonic stem cell research, human cloning by somatic cell nuclear transfer, or any other research not specifically authorized.

A notable ally on S. 2754 is Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania), who also has fought for new federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. He is a sponsor of S. 471, a companion bill to the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act (H.R. 810) that cleared the House more than a year ago but still awaits a vote in the Senate. A month ago, Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tennessee) said that vote could come this month on those bills, which would permit federal money for stem cells derived from in vitro fertilization clinics' excess embryos.

Santorum said that debate has yet to be scheduled, but noted that it would include S. 471 as well as alternatives that would “very importantly” be acceptable at the White House. President Bush has said he would veto any measure supporting embryonic stem cells.

Santorum has called his bill a “significant compromise,” and Specter has noted that his backing does not signal his abandonment of those other legislative efforts. S.2754 relates to techniques outlined by the president's Council on Bioethics last year, including variations on altered nuclear transfer.

Santorum said that, by following recommendations from the president's bioethics panel, “we have come up with some language that can accelerate and focus research on areas that are both very promising from a scientific point of view, as well as acceptable from a moral and ethical point of view.”

The bill has been referred to the Senate's Health, Edu-cation, Labor and Pensions Committee. A related measure has been introduced in the House by Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Maryland) labeled H.R. 5526.

Harvard University (Cambridge, Massachusetts) recently unveiled a privately funded program for embryonic stem cells, sidestepping the restrictions on federal funding.