By Robert Bazell Chief science and health correspondent
NBC News
updated 7/17/2006 4:53:42 PM ET 2006-07-17T20:53:42
COMMENTARY

Call it the great stem cell sham.

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On Capitol Hill they know the script. In the next few days the Senate will debate and approve three measures covering embryonic stem cell research. President Bush will exercise the first veto of his administration, and Congress will fail to override it.

Nothing will change, except that many senators, taking little risk in this election year, will be able to say they took principled stands for — or against — the research. In some cases, they will claim both.

Here is a guide to the research and the bills up for consideration.

The research
Most everyone knows by now that embryonic stem (ES) cells are capable of becoming any type of cell in the body — blood, eyes, muscle, nerve, brain and bone, to name a few.

Many scientists believe they hold the as yet unproven possibility of providing treatments for many diseases, including Parkinson’s, diabetes, spinal cord injury and cancer. The term "stem cell" creates confusion because there are many types of stem cells in the human body. The stem cell in the bone marrow for example can become any type of blood cell. But while adult stem cells might help with some diseases, many leading researcher believe ES cells hold by far the greatest promise. 

The dilemma
Scientists obtain ES cells only by destroying embryos — at a stage when they are still a clump of cells invisible to the naked eye — less than a week after the egg was fertilized. There is no shortage. More than 400,000 remain frozen in fertility clinics across the country.

Some people regard the destruction of these embryos as a desecration of human life. Others do not. Therein lies the ethical dilemma.

In one of his first major acts as President, Bush attempted to forge a compromise by declaring that federal funding could pay only for research on cell lines that were already in existence in 2001. That Solomon-like effort simply failed.

Today, there are about 21 existing human ES lines and many technical issues limit the research with them. The U.S. government, largely through the National Institutes of Health, pays for most significant basic research — not just in this country, but throughout the world.

Many scientists believe the Bush restrictions have severely limited the research on ES cells. That is why advocates for people with diseases and disabilities, including such luminaries as Christopher Reeve, Michael J. Fox and Nancy Reagan have argued forcefully to end the restrictions

The major bill
By far the most significant piece of legislation is a Senate bill identical to a measure authored by Rep. Mike Castle, R-De., which passed the House last year by a vote of 238 to 194. This is what the stem cell research advocates view as the minimum necessary to advance the field. The bill would lift most restrictions on federal funding for ES research.

The key exception: the actual destruction of the embryo cannot be paid by the federal government money. So, with private money, a researcher could go to a fertility clinic, and so long as the parents who produced the embryo give permission, he could harvest stem cells from a frozen embryo. Then, the same or a different scientist could use an NIH grant to work with the cells.

The Senate decided to vote on this bill without allowing any amendments. Since the House approved it already that means it will go straight to the President for his veto.

The frivolous  bills
The two Republican Senators from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum and Arlen Specter, authored one of the companion bills. It directs the federal government research establishment to search for means of obtaining embryonic stem cells from sources other than human embryos.

This is meaningless for two reasons. 

The NIH and other agencies can already fund such research. The bill provides no new money to do it. And, although some complicated schemes have been proposed, no one knows how this could be accomplished. Its main goal is provide cover allowing anti-stem cell senators to say they are doing something positive

The third bill, the “Fetus Farming Prohibition Act” from Sen. Santorum, along with Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan, would make it a crime to use stem cells (or any other tissue) if the material comes from a pregnancy initiated and terminated specifically to produce tissue. It also prohibits using tissue from human embryos grown in animals.

No one I know is considering either scenario. As I mentioned, 400,000 frozen embryos remain in laboratory freezers so there is no need for wild schemes to get more.

The end game
Sources say Mr. Bush will veto only the substantive bill.

The other two will pass the House quickly after the Senate approves them and the President will sign those into law. There is a slight chance the Senate will override the veto of the main bill, but the House definitely will not.

The entire process will be orchestrated so that the President’s veto and the failed overrides will take place in less then 24 hours — as one legislative aide told me, “within one news cycle” — to minimize the publicity.

Show over.

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