Washington Editor

WASHINGTON - President Bush is coming under renewed pressure from research science advocates in the House who are urging him to revise his restrictive policy on embryonic stem cell research.

A bipartisan group of 206 members of Congress asked the president via a petition to re-think the embryonic stem cell policy that is being blamed for damaging cutting-edge research in the U.S. The effort was led by Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), Randy Cunningham (R-Calif.), Michael Castle (R-Del.) and Calvin Dooley (D-Calif.).

At issue here is the president's policy limiting federal funding for stem cell research to 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.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who makes no secret of his disdain for Bush policies, particularly those related to science, in March sent Bush a letter quoting National Institutes of Health sources as saying that eight of the 23 lines OK'd for federally funded research dollars were not ready for distribution. Of the remaining 55 lines, he said NIH officials had determined that seven are duplicates and 17 have failed to replicate. Thirty-one lines are the property of institutions outside the U.S. that do no have NIH funding, the letter said. (See BioWorld Today, March 4, 2004.)

NIH officials later told BioWorld Today there were 15 cell lines ready for research, plus eight derivations at organizations that have NIH grants to be developed. On Wednesday, DeGette released a statement saying there are 19 lines available. Whatever the case, many in the science community believe there is a problem.

Indeed, Kevin Wilson, director of public policy for the American Society for Cell Biology in Bethesda, Md., on Thursday told BioWorld Today, "We certainly feel that the president's policy has not turned out to be everything that he probably envisioned it to be." In the end, Wilson said, if the lines aren't accessible to scientists, then the policy cannot be considered successful.

"What we are finding out is that the lines are not available - we are not anywhere close to [accessing] the original 64 lines," he said. "It's time to move on."

Limited funding has had an impact on U.S. science, Wilson said, citing the success of South Korean researchers who developed stem cells from a cloned human embryo, using somatic-cell nuclear transfer. (See BioWorld Today, Feb. 13, 2004.)

Wilson is not the first person to publicly state that that research should have - and could have - been done on U.S. soil.

Wilson also said there's more going on than the constraints placed on science by the administration, referring to an image problem.

"Unfortunately, in this administration biomedical research has really only seen one good day - that was the night Bush made the stem cell announcement and said this area of research has promise," he said. "Since then, science has been vilified. Look at the way [Bush] talks about cloning - this has had a strong impact on science in the U.S."

In a prepared statement, DeGette said as a result of the president's policy, scientists who want to do stem research in the U.S. are either taking their talents and expertise to other countries or other areas of science.

Also, in a prepared statement, the Washington-based Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research said the lines that qualify for federal funding are not genetically or racially diverse enough to meet research needs.

Furthermore, it might be impossible to develop future therapies with the current lines, since cell lines cultivated in the past were exposed to mouse "feeder" cells, and might not be acceptable under federal regulations on biological materials drawn from more than one species.

Many scientists argue that therapeutic cloning applications could lead to revolutionary therapies for Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injuries, diabetes, heart disease and other debilitating conditions. Others say there are alternative approaches and therapies that abrogate the need for human embryonic stem cell research.