The Scientific Activist

One of the primary goals of Congress since the Democrats’ stunning November 2006 election victory has been restoring federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. President Bush first imposed the restrictions on embryonic stem cell research in August 2001. After the House voted in May 2005 to overturn these restrictions, the Republican Senate stalled for over a year before finally voting in favor of reversing the funding ban as well in July 2006. Bush vetoed this legislation later that month, and both the House and the Senate were short the necessary 2/3 majority to override the veto.

Congress is now attempting again to overturn the Bush Administration restrictions on funding embryonic stem cell research with HR 3, The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which will be voted on in the House tomorrow. The bill is identical to HR 810, the piece of legislation vetoed by Bush last year. Although both the House and Senate have more pro-research votes lined up for this round of voting, neither has a guaranteed 2/3 majority. The Senate, however, is only one vote short, according to The Center for American Progress (hat tip to Framing Science). Unfortunately, a 2/3 majority would be required in both houses to override another veto.

Although things are likely to play out as they did last year, the Democrats will once again be able to demonstrate how out of touch the Bush Administration and conservative Republicans are with the American people, who strongly favor federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. A group of Republican Congressmen even scheduled a press conference today to voice their opposition to the legislation. Still, even if this further alienates the often anti-science Republican Party, this is no substitute for having the actual funding that this promising area of science needs.

Complicating things slightly is the publication earlier this week of a paper by De Coppi et al detailing the medical utility and impressive plasticity of amniotic stem cells. As this study has already received overly-enthusiastic press coverage declaring that it “sidesteps the hurdles facing embryonic stem cell research,” one can’t help being reminded of the “ethically sound” stem cell fiasco from earlier this year. As noted previously on Framing Science, embryonic stem cell research opponents are already trying to use this as an excuse to stall HR 3.

The senior author on the paper, Anthony Atala, has made it very clear, though, that despite their promise, amniotic stem cells are no replacement for embryonic stem cells. The AP reports:

The author of a study on amniotic stem cells urged Congress yesterday not to consider his work a substitute for the search for disease-fighting material from embryonic stem cells.

“Some may be interpreting my research as a substitute for the need to pursue other forms of regenerative medicine therapies, such as those involving embryonic stem cells. I disagree with that assertion,” wrote Anthony Atala of Wake Forest University, the author of a study published this week and widely seized upon by opponents of embryonic stem cell research as a more moral option….

In a letter to sponsors of legislation up for a House vote tomorrow, Atala wrote that it was “essential that National Institutes of Health-funded researchers are able to fully pursue embryonic stem cell research as a complement to research into other forms of stem cells.”

As the recent study demonstrates, amniotic stem cells offer impressive potential for a variety of medical treatments and should prove very useful medically in the future. Despite this, they are not totipotent (unlike embryonic stem cells) and the extent of how much they differ from embryonic stem cells remains to be seen. Hopefully no legislators will be convinced, then, that they offer a viable substitute for embryonic stem cells.

Regardless, HR 3 will without a doubt pass in the House tomorrow, as it should. The real test will lie in the future, when the House and Senate will have to each muster a 2/3 majority to override the expected Bush veto.

P. De Coppi, G. Bartsch, Jr., M.M. Siddiqui, T. Xu, C.C. Santos, L. Perin, G. Mostoslavsky, A.C. Serre, E.Y. Snyder, J.J. Yoo, M.E. Furth, S. Soker, A. Atala. Isolation of amniotic stem cell lines with potential for therapy, Nature Biotechnology 25 (2007), 100-106.