Stem Cell Research and Its Cures Are up to Congressional Democrats (Rep. Roscoe Bartlett)

The Senate has approved two bills, S.5 and S.30, both of which would expand federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.  Now it’s up to Congressional Democratic leaders to decide if patients and researchers must wait to expand federal funding of embryonic stem cell research until 2009 or just a few months.

S. 5 received 63 votes.  S. 30 received 70 votes. S. 5 can not become law because the President has promised to veto it.  His veto will be sustained by the House and the Senate.  President Bush would sign S. 30 into law.

Ethical embryonic stem cell bill language that I have worked six years to make law is included in both S. 5 and S. 30.  I support S. 30. However, I oppose S. 5 and I support President Bush’s promised veto because it is both scientifically unnecessary and ethically unacceptable to destroy embryos to obtain their embryonic stem cells for scientific research.  Let me explain why this is true.

Stem cell research offers tremendous potential to alleviate the suffering that affects millions of Americans due to diseases and conditions such as paralysis, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.  Embryonic and pluripotent (or embryonic-like adult) stem cells are those that can become many types of tissues and are long-lived. Embryonic stem cells are totipotent, meaning (and obviously) they will become every type of human tissue.  These pluripotent qualities, not the origin of stem cells, are what scientists believe hold the most promise for expanding their understanding of human diseases and to develop better treatments or cures.  Human embryonic stem cell lines were first created in 1999 using procedures that destroy the embryos. I have consulted with many of the nation’s top stem cell scientists and medical researchers.  Most scientists and doctors believe that embryonic stem cells should have greater potential for medical treatments than pluripotent adult stem cells.

Science and medical research should serve life, not sacrifice life.  That ethical position is why President Clinton imposed a ban on federal funding of destructive human embryonic stem cell research.

After more than thirty years of research, pluripotent adult stem cells are being used successfully for more than 70 treatments of human patients.  Eight years after the creation of human embryonic stem cell lines, no treatments for patients have been developed from embryonic stem cells.  It’s impossible to project if an eight year-old will grow up to become a star quarterback.  Similarly, only more time and more research will determine whether embryonic or pluripotent adult stem cells will produce more, different or better treatments.

My support and advocacy for embryonic stem cell research that does not harm embryos comes from two experiences.  I am the only Member of Congress who earned both Master’s and Doctorate degrees in Human Physiology.  My studies included courses in advanced embryology. Second, I am pro-life and am proud of my cumulative 100% pro-life voting record.

I believed from my studies of how embryos develop and, particularly, the occurrence of identical twins, that it should be possible to obtain cells from an embryo to create a stem cell line without destroying or even harming embryos.  I attended a briefing for Members and staff sponsored by NIH in the spring of 2001 when President Bush was being urged to consider proposals to end President Clinton’s ban.  I closely questioned the NIH scientists and they confirmed that it should be possible to create embryonic stem cell lines without harming embryos.  I told President Bush about this exciting possibility, and he assigned Karl Rove to check it out.  Unfortunately, Karl Rove came away from NIH with the mistaken impression that it would be impossible to create embryonic stem cell lines without destroying embryos.

On August 9, 2001, President Bush removed the ban imposed by President Clinton. He approved federal funding for research on embryonic stem cell lines already in existence.  He prohibited federal funding and incentives for research on stem cell lines created by destroying human embryos after that date.  Since then, the federal government has spent $130 million for human embryonic stem cell research.

The political debates about stem cell research have lagged far behind scientific advances in stem cell research. For an example, in the spring of 2005, the President’s Council on Bioethics released a White Paper that examined four alternative methods of obtaining pluripotent stem cells from both embryos and adult sources without harming embryos.  The findings did not affect the House debate on H.R. 810.  That is the bill to expand federal funding for destructive embryonic stem cell research only on “surplus” embryos from fertility clinics.  Each “surplus” embryo is genetically unique and could develop into the next Einstein or Beethoven.  That is demonstrated by the fact that more than one hundred “surplus” embryos have been adopted and born as “Snowflake babies.”

After the White Paper was released, I began working in earnest with the Administration, NIH scientists and leading pro-life groups to develop legislation to provide federal funding for ethical embryonic and pluripotent stem cell research without creating or harming human embryos.

There have been steady scientific advances in many techniques considered in the Council’s White Paper.  One was based upon my suggestion that it should be possible to create a stem cell line by removing a cell from an embryo.  Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PIGD) is an option that is now available at most of the 600 fertility clinics in the U.S. offering in vitro fertilization (IVF).  PIGD removes 1 or sometimes 2 cells from 8-cell embryos who are subsequently implanted and develop into babies.  Other researchers have made progress producing stem cell lines from these early stage embryos.

Another technique is the development of protocols to harvest live embryonic cells from IVF embryos that failed to develop.  An analogy is the protocols developed for live organ donations after patients are determined to be clinically brain dead.

There have been numerous studies developing techniques to reprogram patient’s own adult stem cells to an earlier pluripotent stage of development.

In 2006, S. 2754, the Alternative Pluripotent Stem Cell Act, was introduced by Senators Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).  S. 2754 was based upon the White Paper and the legislation I had introduced with Congressman Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) who is a pro-life M.D. OB-GYN.

The President’s Council on Bioethics report and subsequent breakthroughs producing pluripotent adult and embryonic stem cell lines without harming embryos were discussed at length during the Senate’s debate on H.R. 810 and S. 2754.  That contributed to the Senate’s 100-0 approval of S. 2754.

However, S. 2754 was opposed by the House authors of H.R. 810 and the Democratic leaders of the House who actively lobbied against the bill.  Less than a week later and with only 10 minutes of debate, S. 2754 fell 13 votes short of a required super majority of two-thirds under the House Suspensions Calendar parliamentary procedures.

In the months since President Bush vetoed H.R. 810, the science of stem cell research continues to advance much faster than the politics of stem cell research.

Politics, not science explains why Democratic Congressional leaders decided to introduce as top 10 legislative priorities bills that are identical to H.R. 810: H.R. 3 and S. 5.

In January 2007 the journal Nature Biotechnology published a peer-reviewed paper by a team that reports success creating every type of human tissue attempted from pluripotent adult stem cells in amniotic fluid.  This was a capability previously thought possible only by embryonic stem cells.

House Democratic leaders scheduled a vote on H.R. 3 as part of their First 100 Hours of Floor Debate.  I asked, but they refused to allow a vote on the Bartlett-Gingrey bill, H.R. 322 that was based upon S. 2754.  H.R. 3 fell 39 votes short of the margin necessary to override a veto.

In the Senate, Democratic leaders decided to add to S. 5 the language from S. 2754 in a Star Print.  I understand that a Star Print in a Senate bill indicates there was an error in the enrollment of the original text. The correcting language from S. 2754 prioritizes funding for research with near term benefits for patients and includes funding for alternative methods of obtaining pluripotent stem cells without harming embryos.

Last week as the Senate was debating, a paper was published by the Journal of American Medical Association.  An American and Brazilian team funded by private sources and the government of Brazil reported that 13 of 15 patients suffering from Type 1 Juvenile Diabetes were successfully treated with their own adult stem cells and did not need insulin shots for up to three years.  Many Senators apparently didn’t get the news and argued that only embryonic stem cells had the potential to treat diabetes.

Because Senate leaders added provisions from S. 2754, the House must vote on S. 5 before it can be sent to the President for his promised veto.  Will the Congressional Democratic leadership also permit the House to vote on the HOPE Act, S. 30?  After all, it is the most popular stem cell bill approved by the Senate with 70 votes.  The President has said he’d sign it into law.  However, even IF the President would veto S. 30, the Congress has the votes to override.

The fastest way to accelerate embryonic stem cell research is for Congressional Democratic leaders to approve simultaneous votes on S. 5 and S. 30.  Are they among the vast majority of Americans who enthusiastically support providing research dollars for ethical embryonic stem cell research that protects human life? Or is their highest priority perpetuating the political myth that President Bush opposes embryonic stem cell research?

The sponsors of H.R. 3 may object to the changes the Senate made before approving S. 5.  Perhaps, they will demand a Conference to reconcile the differences between H.R. 3 and S 5.  That would require more time and additional votes by both the House and the Senate before a bill could reach the President’s desk.

However, I hope that Congressional Democratic leaders will decide that advancing scientific and medical research is their highest priority and permit simultaneous votes on both S. 5 and S. 30 as soon as possible.

Congressional Democratic leaders will decide if patients and scientists wait for months or years for expansions of embryonic stem cell research.

Tags Adult stem cell Biology Biotechnology Bush Company Technology Embryonic stem cell Health Person Career Politics Stem cell Stem cell controversy Stem cell laws and policy in the United States Stem cells

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