Prospects of the US passing a federal bill in support of all forms of stem cell research seem to have stalled, with a busy legislative timetable and lack of agreement on the issues to blame. Last year, Congress seemed like it had successfully reopened the debate on stem cell research in the US - particularly embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research. Current policy, set by President Bush on 9 August 2001, only allows public funds to be used for research on ES cell lines that were created before that date. However, eight months on from the last debates in Congress, the new bill - known as the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act - has got no further forward, seemingly having stalled in the Senate after being passed easily by the US House of Representatives last May.
Now, proponents of the legislation are planning a 'final push' next month, in order to see the bill debated in the Senate. However, Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader (who was in support of the bill and promised it would come up for a vote in early 2006), has not yet allocated any time for debate. If it does come up for debate in this legislative session, opponents of the bill are saying that they will filibuster any attempts to get it passed.
Many scientists complain that the cell lines that Bush's current policy allows them to work on are less effective than more recently created lines, as they are contaminated with the mouse feeder cells used to grow them. The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act would, if passed, extend funding to scientists for research on embryos left over from fertility treatments and donated for research purposes. Six other bills that would extend the policy in other ways - including one that would only allow research to take place on embryos created in or before 2005 Ã were also introduced to the Senate last year, but none have been debated.
After the last round of debates, in August 2005, President Bush restated his intention to veto any new law extending his policy on ES cell research, if the Senate passes it. A presidential veto can be overridden if there are 67 or more votes in favour of the bill in the Senate - Senator Arlen Specter, one of the sponsors of the bill, said last summer that at least 62 Senators had pledged their support. Amy Call, a spokeswoman for Bill Frist, said that he still considers the legislation to be a priority, but said that the schedule has grown 'really tight' and other issues had become more pressing.
In the meantime, Dr Mahendra Rao, head of the US National Institute on Aging (part of the National Institutes for Health), says that he is resigning from the post because of Bush's ES cell policy. He is leaving to return to the private sector - to Invitrogen, a Californian biotechnology company. He said that he opposes Bush's position on funding for ES cell research, and the limits placed on the number of cell lines available for state-funded researchers to work on: 'I felt we needed to be working on a larger number of lines', he said, adding 'at least on lines that carried certain characteristics that were derived subsequent to that deadline'.
Another scientist, James Thomson, who was the first to isolate and grow human ES cells in the laboratory, has also criticised Bush's policy. Speaking at BIO 2006, the biotechnology industry's largest international meeting, held in Chicago last week, Thomson, from the University of Wisconsin said that 'federal funding is not proportional to the need right now'. He said that 'the President's compromise is a bad compromise and does not represent good public policy', and added 'now is the time to change it'.