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Looser Rules for Stem Cells Sought

House Members Petition President

April 29, 2004
Rick Weiss
Washington Post

More than 200 members of the House of Representatives petitioned President Bush yesterday to loosen current rules governing medical research on human embryonic stem cells, saying the system he imposed nearly three years ago is stifling the promising field and delaying the development of cures.

The bipartisan push includes several of Bush's conservative supporters and is the latest effort by scientists, advocates for patients and others to place the controversial topic on the election-year agenda. Sen. John F. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has said he favors fewer restrictions on the research, which aims to turn the cells into treatments but has been rejected by some as unethical because five-day-old embryos are destroyed.

The Bush policy bars federal funding of research on any stem cells from embryos destroyed after Aug. 9, 2001, greatly limiting the number of cell colonies available to taxpayer-backed researchers.

In a brief statement yesterday, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said the president "continues to believe" the policy is adequate.

But advocates for patients have become increasingly outspoken amid evidence that American scientists may be surrendering the hot field to foreign researchers. They also note that every stem cell colony available under the Bush plan is contaminated with animal cells, making them less useful.

"As you know, embryonic stem cells have the potential to be used to treat and better understand deadly and disabling diseases that affect more than 100 million Americans, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, and many others," reads the letter, signed by 206 members. "We would very much like to work with you to modify the current embryonic stem cell policy so that it provides this area of research the greatest opportunity to lead to the treatments and cures we are hoping for."

Although the letter does not propose specific changes, congressional leaders said they want funding for research on stem cells retrieved from spare frozen embryos slated for destruction at fertility clinics.

"I'm pro-life. Been pro-life for 14 years. But this is an area in which we can save lives," said Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.), who with Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), Michael N. Castle (R-Del.) and Calvin M. Dooley (D-Calif.) spearheaded the effort to round up signers. About 36 Republicans did so, including antiabortion stalwart Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.).

Cunningham choked up as he recalled a seriously ill young girl who approached him awhile ago and said, "You're the only person who can save my life." She died, he said. "The bottom line is, these cells are going to be thrown away" if they are not used for research.

Opponents of the research countered yesterday that other kinds of stem cells, which can be obtained harmlessly from adults, are at least as promising as embryonic cells -- an assertion that other scientists have called unfounded.

"Instead of throwing more federal dollars into embryonic stem cell research, the administration should expand its support for adult stem cell research -- research that is producing real results with real patients," said the Washington-based group Do No Harm.

Rep. David Joseph Weldon (R-Fla.), a doctor who has led previous House action against embryo research, concurred: "If this controversial research has all the promise its supporters claim, let the private sector fund it, because taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for what many think is unethical research."

A telephone survey of 802 people in 18 politically divided states, conducted last month by Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the Civil Society Institute in Newton, Mass., concluded that two out of three voters favor a change in the Bush plan.

"Even subgroups originally resistant to the idea, such as Evangelicals and Republicans, support stem cell research after hearing a description of the process and the potential of the research, despite the explicit recognition of the embryo destruction required," said Guy Molyneaux, a senior vice president with Hart.

Other surveys done for opponents have found less support.

Actress Mary Tyler Moore, who helps the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation promote embryonic stem cell work, appeared at a news conference yesterday with several congressional signers of the Bush letter.

"Like President Bush, I am pro-life," she said. But spare embryos should be used to help others, she said, "rather than discarded as medical waste."

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