Archive for Saturday, August 11, 2001

Congress inherits stem cell debate

August 11, 2001


— The debate over stem cells is shifting to the halls of Congress, but the action is moving to the nation's laboratories as scientists begin the painstaking work of translating promise into actual treatments.

President Bush's decision to allow limited federal funding for the research offered both comfort and angst to advocates on both sides of the debate. And it complicated the politics all around.

At issue is research involving days-old human embryos, each one smaller than the period at the end of this sentence, left over from fertility treatments. Inside sit stem cells that can develop into any type of tissue.

Scientists say these cells could help cure many diseases, but in order to get them, the embryo must be destroyed. For some who believe life begins at conception, this amounts to taking one life to try to save another.

Trying to thread an ethical needle, Bush said Thursday that he would allow federal funding for research on stem cell lines, but only those that have already been created. Each embryo can yield one stem cell line, which can continue replicating.

At the National Institutes of Health on Friday, researchers were beginning to catalogue the existing stem cell lines, which officials now estimate at 60 worldwide. Around the country, scientists were beginning to hone ideas for grant applications, which were expected to be submitted and awarded by early next year.

Dr. Harold Varmus, who led the NIH under President Clinton, predicted that hundreds of researchers would get into the field.

Also Friday, President Bush defended his decision, saying he struck the right balance between the sanctity of life and the urgency of research.

In Washington, both sides expected debate over the issue to resume in Congress next month.

Research proponents make up a majority of the Senate and close to it in the House, and some have pledged to push for broader funding.

"Restrictions on this lifesaving research will slow the development of the new cures that are so urgently needed by millions of patients across America," Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass, said.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said he would continue to push legislation allowing funding with few restrictions.

On the other side, Christian conservatives were warning Bush that he can only go against them so many times.

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