Washington Editor

WASHINGTON - Led by Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a cadre of bipartisan lawmakers Wednesday continued to push for expanding federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

"We are here today to press very hard for the enactment of the Specter-Harkin bill," said Specter, who is continuing his legislative work despite chemotherapy to treat lymphoma. "The matter will be coming up for Senate consideration, we think, some time next week."

The Senate bill, labeled S. 471, is identical to a House bill called H.R. 810 that passed with a vote of 238-194 two months ago. That legislation, co-sponsored by Reps. Mike Castle (R-Del.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), would allow federal money for research resulting from excess embryos produced at in vitro fertilization clinics. (See BioWorld Today, May 26, 2005.)

Such funding remains restricted due to White House-imposed rules established in August 2001, and getting President Bush to put his signature on any embryonic stem cell legislation clearly remains a challenge, though Hatch said he would "urge President Bush to sign" the proposed law.

Michael Werner, who heads a new eponymous biotech consulting firm here, was skeptical about such hopefulness.

"I think the president has been pretty clear about what he's going to do," Werner told BioWorld Today. "But their view is that if they win a big victory, then it strengthens their hand. Things in politics are that people's positions change, but I think that's really optimistic in this case."

Some Republicans have begun developing alternative bills to earmark federal funds for research into harvesting embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos. Leading those efforts are Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.). Werner cautioned that those bills, which still are being written, could siphon votes away from the Specter-Harkin bill.

"The big question is how much support Frist's bill pulls away from H.R. 810," he said, noting that a similar situation occurred just before the House voted on the Castle-DeGette measure when alternative legislation arose for federal funding of research into cord blood-derived stem cells. In that case, the secondary bill passed without hampering H.R. 810. "But we have a sense that that's not quite the case [this time]," Werner added.

Though all Specter-Harkin supporters expressed backing for broad research into stem cell derivation, they cautioned against supplanting stem cell harvests from embryos due to ideological concerns. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) labeled those new developments as efforts to "muddy the waters," as he and his colleagues want a Senate vote on the Specter-Harkin bill "without any amendments."

"I am supportive of all forms of stem cell research that can be conducted in an ethical manner," Hatch said, later adding that "it would be a mistake to prematurely pull the plug on the proven techniques embraced by H.R. 810 in the hope that some new, and apparently speculative, alternative sources of stem cells will be successful one day. Complementary research, yes; substitute research, no."

A day earlier, during a committee hearing on stem cell research, Specter used an hourglass as a symbol to underscore the timeliness of the issue. He, Hatch and Harkin were joined by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D.-Mass.) and Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), as well as Castle and DeGette, at Wednesday's press conference.

Also in attendance was actor Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson's disease and has championed causes such as expanded federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to develop cures for his condition and others. The gathering also drew a large crowd of additional supporters, including many spinal cord injury patients in wheelchairs and diabetes advocates.

"There is a lot of public support," Werner said, pointing to recent poll results as backup but adding that the support might not matter.

"As was said today, there are some folks who are driven by ideology, and in that case, if that's true, public support isn't going to make much of a difference," he said.

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