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Broad Stem Cell Debate Shapes Up in Senate

Stem Cell Bill May Be in Jeopardy Despite Wide Support
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WebMD Health News

July 12, 2005 -- The Senate is headed for a broad and heated scientific and ethical debate that could derail popular legislation designed to lift limits on embryonic stem cell research.

Lawmakers are likely to vote next week on a bill lifting stem cell funding restrictions laid down by President Bush four years ago. A majority of senators support the legislation, which passed the House by a wide margin in May.

At the same time, several lawmakers are now trying to force a debate on other contentious issues that could wind up undercutting efforts to expand funding for stem cell studies.

Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) told reporters Tuesday that he has offered stem cell supporters a long-sought-after vote on a bill opening up federal funding for stem cell lines derived from embryos left over from in vitro fertilization procedures.

Researchers have pegged embryonic stem cells as an important potential source of treatments for diseases including Parkinson's, diabetes, and heart damage. Stem cells have the ability to transform into any of the body's several hundred different forms of tissues, making them a candidate for growing new cells to treat various diseases.

Despite wide support on Capitol Hill, the bill remains controversial because of objections to research requiring the destruction of human embryos to extract these stem cells. Bush has vowed to veto the legislation if it reaches his desk.

Alternative Research

But several Republican lawmakers also want a debate on another bill that would fund research on experimental stem cell extraction methods that do not require the destruction of embryos. Supporters promote the research as a potential way to pursue studies using human embryonic stem cells without the controversy now surrounding the field.

"This is a good alternative because it may solve the ethical constraints many of us have," Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), one of the bill's sponsors, tells WebMD. Coburn, who is a physician, is among a group of lawmakers who oppose research involving the destruction of embryos.

Stem cell supporters remain concerned that funding the methods, which so far have only been tried in animals, may impede proven methods of extracting stem cell lines from human embryos.

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