Medical Device Daily

WASHINGTON – The push is back on for federal spending on embryonic stem cell research, with new poll numbers pointing to significant support from the public.

The survey, which found that 72% of respondents favor such research, was conducted nearly a year after the House of Representatives passed the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act (H.R. 810). That approaching anniversary is seen as an impetus of sorts to pressure the Senate to bring the bill to a vote. The survey also found that 70% of respondents believe the Senate should vote on the matter.

“Support for this research is growing,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said at a press conference Tuesday. “We think it's high time for the Senate to act.”

He and other colleagues are pressing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tennessee) to call a vote on the matter before H.R. 810's anniversary next week. In response, Frist said it would be addressed later this summer. Co-sponsors of a companion Senate bill (S. 471) include Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

Less than three months after the House passed H.R. 810 in May 2005, Frist broke from White House policy that has limited federal spending on embryonic stem cell research since August 2001, and he instead called for a change. Though he said it should have “a thoughtful and thorough” rewrite at the time, he was expected to bring the bill to a vote soon after the annual congressional recess for summer.

But that never happened.

“For 358 days, we have delayed in the Senate,” Harkin said at the press conference, a delay that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) called “inexplicable” and “unacceptable.” In further criticism, Hatch quoted a letter from former First Lady Nancy Reagan, who called the Senate slowdown “hard to comprehend.”

H.R. 810, co-sponsored by Reps. Mike Castle (R-Delaware) and Diana DeGette (D-Colorado), would allow federal money for research resulting from excess embryos produced at in vitro fertilization clinics. That would broaden the number of cell lines available to researchers seeking support from the National Institutes of Health. It cleared the House witha vote of 238-194.

Harkin said there are enough votes for Senate passage, as well, and Hatch said the matter could be resolved next week, despite the ongoing focus here on immigration reform. They both urged interested parties to flood Frist's office with calls for a vote, an action echoed by Feinstein. “The body, as recalcitrant as it might be, will move,” she predicted.

The matter's bipartisan support is notable. “We should not politicize this research,” said Hatch, an affirmed abortion foe who nonetheless added that pro-life opposition groups “ought to be pro this type of research.” Along the same lines, Harkin declared that the issue “transcends party lines.”

But despite the House victory and growing Senate support for the measure, President George Bush has made no secrets about his opposition, and that remains the biggest hurdle to improving embryonic stem cell research conditions. While he has yet to veto a measure since taking office, he has made it clear he'd do so on this topic.

A two-thirds majority is needed in both the House and Senate to override a veto, and while some foresee enough votes for a Senate override, that could be a difficult task in the House.

Last year, Bush signed into law less controversial legislation related to cord blood-derived stem cells, the Stem Cell Therapeutic and Research Act of 2005. Also less controversial is research into adult stem cells.

The embryonic stem cell survey, which polled a nationwide random sample of 1,000 people earlier this month, was conducted on behalf of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (Washington), a group of patients groups, industry trade organizations, universities and scientific foundations.

“There is a renewed sense of urgency around this issue,” said Sean Tipton, president of the coalition.

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