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Senate Committee Examines President’s Decision on Stem Cell Research

On September 5, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee held a hearing to discuss the President’s August 9th announcement to allow federal funds to be used for research on roughly 60 existing human embryonic stem cell lines. Since that announcement, supporters and opponents of stem cell research have reacted with mixed feelings, and speculation has surfaced questioning the accuracy of the number of available lines, as well as the quality and availability of those lines.

“President Bush has opened the door to government funding for this important area of health research,” stated Committee Chair Edward Kennedy (D-MA). “The question before this Congress is whether the door is open wide enough; whether the stem cell lines identified by the Administration are adequate and available for the research that is needed now to save lives.”

Praising the President for his “comprehensive and aggressive attempt to try to bring this issue forward,” Ranking Member Judd Gregg (R-NH) said, “It is my belief that we should not act precipitously to expand, or to set out on another course, but rather see and determine what the effects of the initial proposal of the President’s are.”

Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) agreed, adding, “I think we need to be very, very careful at this juncture…not to oversell the promise of this research to the American people.”

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Rep. James Langevin (D-RI) testified before the committee in support of broadening federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research. Saying that the President’s August 9th announcement “made an important opening of the door,” Sen. Specter added, “But there is a real question as to whether the door is open sufficiently, and there is a real question about the accuracy of the facts, which were presented to the President by the Department of Health and Human Services.” In expressing his ardent support for the research, Sen. Specter said, “It would be unfortunate if the ban on the NIH support for human stem cell research results in a missed opportunity to restore hope and quality.”

Rep. Langevin, the first quadriplegic to be elected to Congress, urged the committee “to open the door to research on all excess embryonic stem cells derived in the in vitro fertilization process, and to do so with government oversight that ensures ethical research procedures.” Stating that the administration’s policy “impedes unprecedented life-saving research,” Rep. Langevin said, “We have an obligation to get behind this research, and to see it move forward.”

Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson supported the President’s decision, saying that the President “came to a thoughtful and deliberate decision” that “set us on a wise and deliberate course.”

Speaking to the controversy over the number of lines available, the Secretary stated that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has identified “64 stem cell derivations that meet the President’s eligibility criteria….We have consistently said that these lines are at various stages of development.” In particular, he noted, “What’s most unfair is that some are trying to create conflict between myself, the NIH and the Swedish scientists from the University of Gothenberg over the number of lines that they have that qualify for federal funding. They have 19 lines that qualify for federal funding. That’s what we said; that’s what they have.”

The Secretary also announced an agreement between the NIH and the Wicell Research Institute, Inc., a biotechnology company that currently holds the rights to five existing stem cell lines. Under that agreement, NIH researchers would have access to the five cells for research purposes, would be able to publish the results of their research, and would be able to maintain ownership “of any intellectual property that might arise from its research using those lines.”

Senators questioned the Secretary at length regarding the viability and availability of the 64 existing stem cell lines, as well as the administration’s August 9th cut-off date. Questioning whether the administration would consider revising its policy if there are no new breakthroughs, Sen. Kennedy said, “Wouldn’t it be a tragic mistake to freeze this field in its progress to August 9th, when we don’t know what improvements are going to come down the pike?”

Secretary Thompson assured the committee, “We feel very strongly that the cells are available.” He further stated, “The Administration will not reconsider its deadline, as far as the destruction of embryos.”

The hearing also covered a range of other issues, including the role of intellectual property and patents in stem cell research and the use of mouse cell lines in human embryonic stem cell research.

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