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Frist Backs Funding of Stem Cell Research

Senator Supports Bill Expanding Embryonic Stem Cells Available for Federal Funding
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WebMD Health News

July 29, 2005 -- In a surprise move Friday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said he will back efforts to reverse President Bush's policy restricting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Frist (R-Tenn.) shocked conservatives and delighted research advocates when he rose on the Senate floor to say that he would support a controversial bill greatly expanding the number of embryonic stem cell lines eligible for government-funded studies.

The announcement signaled a stark break from Bush, who has threatened to veto the expansion bill. Frist had been a key White House ally in slowing down the legislation because of ethical concerns.

But Frist said that he had determined that embryonic stem cells represented a research avenue that could not be fulfilled by other less controversial forms of stem cells.

"I also strongly believe -- as do countless other scientists, clinicians, and doctors -- that embryonic stem cells uniquely hold specific promise for some therapies and potential cures that adult stem cells cannot provide," he said.

Federal policy laid down by Bush in August 2001 limited federal funding to 77 stem cell lines that had already been derived from human embryos. But only 22 of those lines have proved viable for research, and scientists have complained that contamination has severely limited even those lines from ever being of use in developing treatments.

Bush has defended the restrictions saying they struck the proper balance between advancing science and protecting nascent human lives in the form of embryos.

But Friday, Frist unexpectedly joined with a bipartisan group of lawmakers pushing to extend National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding to cell lines derived from embryos left over from in vitro fertilization. He said that Bush's limits will "slow our ability to bring potential new treatments for certain diseases.

"Therefore, I believe the president's policy should be modified. We should expand federal funding (and thus NIH oversight) and current guidelines governing stem cell research, carefully and thoughtfully staying within ethical bounds," he said.

The announcement came on the Senate's last day of business before an August recess, meaning that lawmakers won't revisit the issue until at least September.

Ethical Concerns Remain

Frist said he would support a reversal of the policy but warned that he had "significant" concerns with ethical guidelines in the bill. The legislation does not go far enough to prevent clinics from selling embryos to scientists or to specify who has the final say over the implantation of donated embryos, he said.

Those concerns could lead to a "substantial rewriting" of the bill, Frist said.

Still, stem cell supporters reacted with glee to Frist's speech. "Today the majority leader puts principles above politics," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a sponsor of the stem cell expansion bill.

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