By Kim Coghill

Washington Editor

WASHINGTON - The pressure on President Bush to decide whether to continue funding stem cell research is building from special interest groups gaining strength for their causes on both sides of the debate.

About a week ago a Christian-based nonprofit organization known as the Christian Medical Association of Bristol, Tenn., filed a lawsuit against the federal government seeking to stop the National Institutes of Health from funding the controversial research. (See BioWorld Today, March 12, 2001.)

And now, on the heels of that announcement, a coalition of such high-powered members as New York-based Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International and Harvard University have formed to push their message supporting the breakthrough research.

Those two organizations have been joined by the American Society for Cell Biology, of Bethesda, Md.; Parkinson's Action Network, of Santa Rosa, Calif.; University of Wisconsin in Madison; Washington University in St. Louis; Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington; and the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation in Springfield, N.J., to form the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR).

The principal goal is to ensure that current federal policy regarding funding for stem cell research is retained.

"I think what we've seen so far, and this is especially true with members of Congress, is that policy makers are becoming more and more comfortable with this research," said Larry Soler, director of government relations for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and spokesman for the coalition in Washington. "We are going to continue to talk to policy makers both in Congress and the administration about what scientific rationale there is for this research, the ethics of this research and why we believe it is ethically appropriate to move forward."

Stem cells are the master cells for human development and were first isolated in 1998. Scientists believe that these cells could be critical in developing cures for diseases and conditions, including juvenile diabetes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, cancer, heart disease and spinal cord injury.

In September, the NIH finalized guidelines that prohibit funding for derivation of human pluripotent stem cells, but allow funding for research that uses the cells after they have been collected. (See BioWorld Today, Aug. 24, 2000.)

The first-time deadline for grants passed a week ago. Since he took office, Bush has not taken any steps to block the money, but has said he opposes federal funding for that type of research. During the next few months the administration reportedly will review the issue and determine whether to stop the money.

But before Bush makes a decision, his administration is going to get an earful or mailbox full of pleas and materials from interested parties.

CAMR, which supports the NIH rules as written, intends to rely on the grassroots efforts of its member organizations to ensure that decision makers on Capitol Hill are aware that a majority of Americans support federal funding of stem cell research.

The opinion that a majority of Americans support the research comes from a recent nationwide poll commissioned by the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. According to the poll, conducted Jan. 12 to Jan. 15 by Opinion Research Corp. International, 65 percent of the 1,004 Americans surveyed said they support federal funding for stem cell research while 26 percent opposed it and 9 percent said they didn't know.

"I think the more Congress and the administration hear from groups like ours that are devoted to curing disease and promoting science and helping people, the better we are able to get our message across," Soler said.

The coalition certainly isn't the only organization of late to send word to the Bush administration about its opinion on the stem cell issue.

Clearwater, Fla.-based Cryo-Cell International Inc. forwarded the president and members of Congress a letter offering "an effective and non-controversial" method of taming the stem cell battle.

Dan Richard, president and CEO of Cryo-Cell, told BioWorld Today that the letter seeks Bush's support in educating parents about storing the stem cell-rich umbilical cords that are thrown away as hospital bio-waste material following births. He views discarding the blood as a medical tragedy since stem cells found in the blood potentially could save lives.

"There's not a mother breathing who would allow her baby's cord blood to be discarded if they only knew that every one of them could save a life," Richard said. "People who object to the use of embryonic or fetal stem cells are people who believe you shouldn't negate a life to save a life. The cord blood would be from babies who are brought to full term by caring and nurturing mothers. We are just asking that they be educated about their options."

Richard said that stem cells derived from cord blood can be used for the same purposes as those that come from embryos or fetuses. n