Supporters of stem-cell research said Wednesday they now had a majority of members of Congress on their side, and urged President Bush to change his policy restricting the work.
A letter signed by 206 members of the House asks Bush to expand his August 2001 executive order limiting federal funds for embryonic stem-cell research.
“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 all hoping for,” they wrote.
Colorado Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette said she believed at least 225 members of the House now supported expanding federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research -- a controversial subject because some people, including Bush, believe that any experiments on human embryos are unethical.
Only 218 votes would be needed, she pointed out, to pass a piece of legislation.
“We speak with one voice in warning the president that his current policy is chilling stem-cell research in this country,” DeGette told a news conference.
But DeGette and fellow supporter Michael Castle, a Delaware Republican, said they had not considered drafting a bill, but were hoping to get the White House to change policy instead.
Stem cells are master cells made by the body. They can give rise to a variety of tissues.
Embryonic stem cells are considered especially powerful, as each one has the potential to become any sort of cell or tissue in the body at all. Scientists hope to master them to tailor make organ or tissue transplants, and to study them to better understand the underlying mechanisms of disease.
The strongest support involves one source of embryonic stem cells -- from embryos made in fertility clinics as part of IVF or test-tube baby attempts. Typically a couple gets more laboratory dish embryos than are needed, and they are frozen for later use or discarded.
Wednesday’s letter does not address the more controversial approach of using cloning technology to make stem cells.
“If these eggs are going to be discarded, why can’t they be used?” asked California Republican Randy Cunningham. “I have been pro-life for 14 years. But this is a period in which we can save lives.”
The turning point for him came, Cunningham said, when a small girl “with some exotic disease” approached him after a hearing on funding medical research.
“This child came up to me and said, ’Congressman, you are the only person that can save my life’, and she (later) died,” Cunningham said, breaking down in tears.
Cunningham said he would only support a narrow expansion of stem-cell policy. He said he could not support experiments in which stem cells would be created using cloning technology.
Bush’s August 2001 policy restricted the use of federal funds to batches of embryonic stem cells, called cell lines, that existed at the moment of his announcement. The White House said this would be plenty to allow current work to go ahead.
While there were 78 stem-cell lines in August 2001 that the policy allowed funding, Castle said, “Today, according to the National Institutes of Health’s own estimate, there are an estimated 15 to 19 stem cell lines available, most of which are of marginal quality and have been exposed to mouse feeder cells.”
This means they could be contaminated with mouse viruses and thus would be unsuitable for use in people.