The Stem Cell Wars: A Partial Victory

The Senate is expected to pass a bill easing restrictions on federal funding of stem cell research, but the U.S. will still be a laggard on the science front

For scientists and their supporters in Washington, this should be a week for popping the champagne corks—although the war they've been fighting is far from over. As early as Tuesday evening, July 18, the Senate is expected to pass a bill loosening restrictions on federal funding for stem-cell research. "We will certainly be celebrating in our office," says Carrie D. Wolinetz of the Federation Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB).

The Senate action will be a major milestone in a long, bitter struggle. The story has its roots in 1998, when U.S. scientists first created long-lived cultures of stem cells, called "stem-cell lines." The scientific community immediately saw vast potential. Stem cells are progenitor cells: They are able to become many different parts of the body. Researchers believe it should be possible to transform these cells into the insulin-producing tissue that is lost in diabetes, or the dopamine-making neurons dissipated in Parkinson's disease, thus curing those illnesses—and dozens of others.

Many religious groups and conservatives, however, see the research as a threat to the sanctity of life. One method of creating stem-cell lines involves destroying embryos, anathema to abortion foes. That's why, in August, 2001, President George W. Bush restricted federal funding to research using only those human stem-cell lines that had already been created. The problem is that only a few of those cell lines are useful. The policy, therefore, has had a chilling effect on research in the U.S. (see, 1/23/06, "A Body Blow To Stem Cell Research").


  In contrast, scientists in other countries have been speedily creating and studying new and better cell lines. The statistics are sobering. In 1998, nearly 60% of the papers in the field were written by U.S. scientists. Now, the percentage is below 30%. "The rest of the world—whether it's Israel, Singapore, or Britain—has wised up and is going for it, while we are giving up our leadership," says one university lobbyist in Washington.

Korea alone, for instance, is estimated to be spending more than $100 million a year on embryonic stem cell work. In addition, several countries, such as Korea and Britain, explicitly allow the creation of new human embryos as a source of stem cells. In the U.S., scientists are still doing ground-breaking work with mouse stem cells. But they are reluctant to move to human cells, where the real scientific and commercial payoff lies, because of lack of funds and the constant threat that such an approach could be banned.

All of this puts U.S. industry at a serious competitive disadvantage. The effects wouldn't be seen immediately. It will take years or even decades for researchers to learn how to transform stem cells into new heart muscle, neurons, pancreatic cells, or other key tissues consistently enough to meet Food & Drug Administration requirements for the safety of new treatments.


  But the research will also have shorter-term applications, such as creating cells that the pharmaceutical industry can use to test new drugs. The idea is that turning stem cells into, say, pancreatic tissue, might provide a good test for future diabetes drugs. Already, researchers are staking claims to valuable intellectual property. By falling behind, experts say, the U.S. could lose out on the eventual commercial applications to companies in countries that are rushing ahead with the science.

That's given proponents of stem-cell research two strong arguments to win votes on Capitol Hill. One is the huge scientific and medical potential. Organizations such as the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (comprised of patient groups, universities, foundations, and scientific societies) and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation have been bringing patients to Washington and hammering home the message that stem cells offer the best route to possible cures. Meanwhile, Congress is also becoming increasingly concerned about overseas threats to U.S. business. So proponents have also been playing the competitiveness card.

The efforts have paid off. Last May, in a surprise vote, the House of Representatives passed a bill allowing federal funding for research using stem-cell lines created from unneeded embryos at fertility clinics. Now the Senate is expected to pass the identical measure this week, sending it to the White House.

Still, it's only a partial victory. The provisions of the bill are merely a foot in the door to broader research, scientists caution. And President Bush has vowed to veto the bill. Indeed, opponents are already busy spinning the coming vote as a victory for their side, saying that proponents failed to get a veto-proof margin. They are also pushing two weaker bills, which the President probably will sign. The strategy is to allow the members of Congress who vote for these weaker measures to claim that they are in favor of stem-cell research—without having to actually change today's restrictions.

So once, the celebrations are over, the proponents will get back to work. If, as expected, they fail to convince the President not to veto the bill, they will try to make stem cells a major issue in the upcoming Congressional elections—and in the 2008 Presidential race.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.