Washington Editor

WASHINGTON - The House of Representatives soon is expected to vote on a bill, co-sponsored by Reps. Mike Castle (R-Del.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), which has risen among a number of proposals related to politically controversial stem cell research.

In short, the legislation would provide federal funding that would circumvent President Bush's nearly four-year-old restrictions on such grants. Called the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, it is said to have the support of about 200 other House members - 218 must be on board for passage.

The measure would allow federal money for research resulting from excess embryos produced at in vitro fertilization clinics, stipulating that donors must have received proper informed consent forms and cannot receive financial incentives to offer embryos. It also takes into account new lines that have been created since the August 2001 federal restrictions were enacted.

Action on the Castle-DeGette bill is moving simultaneously with reports of a second major success by the South Korean team in stem cell research, which continues to move forward overseas with less controversy. (See "South Korean Team Makes Patient-Specific Stem Cells," today's issue.)

Backing expanded U.S. research into stem cells, the Biotechnology Industry Organization is throwing its weight behind the bill. Its president, Jim Greenwood, recently penned an op-ed piece in The Morning Call of Lehigh Valley, Pa., to express his support. He wrote that by incorporating ethical guidelines recently released by the National Academy of Sciences into an expanded grant program at the National Institutes of Health for embryonic stem cell research, "Congress could actually strengthen federal oversight of this critical research - as happened with recombinant DNA research 30 years ago."

Other supporters include patient advocacy and research groups that see embryonic stem cells as a ripe source of new therapeutic options.

"We have been at the forefront of urging an expansion of federal policy in the area of funding for embryonic stem cell research," said Daniel Perry, the president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research. He added that the organization has thrown its weight more broadly behind somatic-cell nuclear transfer and all other regenerative medicine research "for its obvious necessity to address incurable and life-threatening diseases, and to keep American science at the forefront of advances so that we can better serve our citizens."

He predicted that the Castle-DeGette bill would receive enough votes in the House, in which unnamed members who have not signed on as co-sponsors have nonetheless offered their support, and sweep into the Senate.

But should the bill move beyond the Capitol and advance to the White House, it could prompt the president to exercise his veto power for the first time since he took office. Perry told BioWorld Today that Bush might not reject the measure, though, and instead see it as "a second chance for the second term to bring the administration's policies on a fast-moving frontier of science up to the minute." But if the president does quash it, there are "perhaps even enough senators to override a presidential veto," Perry added.

Opponents in the House and elsewhere are fighting to make sure the bill doesn't get that far, essentially arguing that the federal government should not finance research that they contend destroys human lives. Among them is Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), a vociferous challenger to the bill, who as a physician has treated spinal cord injury patients. However, he supports the use of adult stem cells, rather than embryonic, as the basis of various therapeutic options. The controversy has alienated Castle, considered a moderate Republican, from others in his party, such as Weldon and House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-Texas).

Companion legislation introduced in the Senate could gain momentum should the Castle-DeGette bill pass, Perry said. But other observers expect that with that chamber largely wrapped up in a debate over judicial nominations, it's difficult to envision a stem cell bill soon moving into the Senate's spotlight.

In spite of the ongoing fracas on Capitol Hill, many states already have adopted measures to fund all kinds of stem cell research without worries over federal funding, with California's $3 billion bond issue standing at the forefront of such efforts. Perry praised the initiatives, but also sounded a bit of caution.

"While we're pleased that those states are keeping some American scientists and some American communities in the forefront of this research," he said, "ultimately you don't want 50 different policies for medical research in this country."

The House is expected to vote next week before recessing for Memorial Day.