Washington Editor

WASHINGTON - So far, it doesn't appear that the Bush administration will lift restrictions on federally funded human embryonic stem cell research despite mounting pressure that has followed the death of former President Ronald Reagan.

President Bush has not shown any signs of loosening his grip on the controversial research even though former first lady Nancy Reagan called for an expansion of such research, which is believed might be useful in discovering treatments for Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, heart disease, diabetes and multiple sclerosis. Others say there are alternative approaches and therapies that abrogate the need for human embryonic stem cell research.

At issue here is the president's policy that limits federal funding for stem cell research to the 78 lines that were available Aug. 9, 2001, the day Bush announced his decision on the subject. (Originally Bush cleared 64 lines; the other 14 were added to the count some months later.) In the years since the policy was implemented, many scientists have complained that some lines are not viable or accessible.

A survey released last week by the Washington-based Opinion Research Corp. (ORC) on behalf of the Results for America project of the nonprofit and nonpartisan Civil Society Institute, said 74 percent of Americans polled support Nancy Reagan's call to lift restrictions on the research.

According to the study, 72 percent of Americans say they are more likely in the wake of President Reagan's passing to support stem cell research. Of the 72 percent, 76 percent identified themselves as moderates, while 64 percent said they were conservatives and 62 percent said they were fundamentalist or evangelical Christians.

Also, Nancy Reagan's clout in the national stem cell debate appears to have risen sharply, with 80 percent of Americans viewing her as credible on the issue, up from 65 percent in a separate survey conducted during March 2004 in 18 key states, ORC said.

On Capitol Hill, 58 senators on June 4 (Reagan died June 5) wrote President Bush urging him to expand embryonic stem cell research. In a similar move in late April, a bipartisan group of 206 members of the House asked the Bush administration via a petition to re-think the policy. (See BioWorld Today, April 30, 2004.)

Following the former president's death, the Ronald Reagan Alzheimer's Breakthrough Act of 2004 was introduced in the Senate, seeking $1.4 billion (double from current figures) in funding for Alzheimer's research at the National Institutes of Health.

The bill also would authorize $250 million in funding for the National Family Caregiver Support Program; expand the Alzheimer's Demonstration Grant Program in every state to fill in gaps in Alzheimer's services, such as respite care, home health care and day care; authorize $7 million for a public education campaign to inform the public about prevention techniques; and provide a tax credit of up to $3,000 to help people with the cost of caring for a loved one (such as a family member) with Alzheimer's, said Sen. Debbie Stabenow's (D-Mich.) office.

AARP Endorses Reimportation Effort

The American Association of Retired Persons threw its support behind a bipartisan reimportation bill that would punish drug companies seeking to protect and control their products by limiting sales to Canadian wholesalers and pharmacies. The bill, which would allow Americans to purchase FDA-approved drugs from Canada and elsewhere, was introduced in the Senate in late April. (See BioWorld Today, April 23, 2004.)

In a 243-186 vote last year, the Republican-controlled House approved similar legislation that would stop companies from limiting sales to foreign wholesalers and pharmacies, referring to those tactics as unfair trade practices.

While it is illegal to import prescription drugs from other countries, the FDA traditionally has looked the other way and failed to take action against the busloads of senior citizens that cross Canadian borders to buy cheaper drugs.

In an effort to prevent their products from being illegally exported into the U.S., a few companies, such as New York-based Pfizer Inc. and London-based GlaxoSmithKline plc, took matters into their own hands last year by limiting shipments to Canadian wholesalers or pharmacies known to sell back into the U.S. Canada does not regulate drugs shipped into the U.S. (See BioWorld Today, Feb. 18, 2003, and Aug. 11, 2003.)

Also in the Senate, Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, introduced separate legislation (referred to as the Safe Importing of Medical Products and Rx Therapies Act) that would allow Americans to import from Canada now, and from the European Union in three years.

Through a user-fee program that would be imposed on all businesses engaged in importation, Gregg's bill would provide the FDA with adequate resources to regulate the program in the same way that the agency regulates imported food. (See BioWorld Today, June 14, 2004.)

Meanwhile, the new Medicare law signed by President Bush in December would legalize importation of prescription drugs if Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson certifies that it is safe.

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