A letter signed by 206 cross-party members of the US House of Representatives has been sent to President Bush, asking him to change his policy on embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research. On 9 August 2001, the President issued an executive order limiting the availability of federal funds for ES cell research. The order allowed federally-funded scientists to conduct research using ES cell lines already in existence at the time of his announcement, but research that would cause the destruction of any further embryos would not be permitted.
Since the 2001 announcement, US scientists have complained that the ES cell lines available are not as good as those produced later, which were created using newer techniques, in particular without the use of mouse 'feeder' cells. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) predicted a total number of 78 such stem cell lines in August 2001, although in March this year it clarified the actual number was somewhere between 15 and 19, and that in the 'best case scenario', only 23 of the named cell lines will ever be viable. In the meantime, privately-funded ES cell research moves on; evidence of which being the announcement by Harvard University that it had created 17 new ES cell lines that it would make freely available to researchers.
In the letter, the Congress members said: 'Scientists have told us that since this policy went into effect more than two years ago, we have learned much more about why the embryonic stem cell lines eligible for federal funding will not be suitable to effectively promote this research'. They point out that 400,000 'spare' embryos - created for use in fertility treatments but lying unused in frozen storage across the US, and which will eventually be destroyed anyway - could be used to create new and better ES cell lines that federally-funded researchers should be able to use. This, the letter says, is because ES cells could 'be used to treat and better understand deadly and disabling diseases that affect many Americans'. It adds: '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 hoping for'.
Two of the Congress members, Democrat Diane DeGette and Republican Michael Castle, said they would introduce a bill if Bush did not act to remove or relax the current restrictions. De Gette said that she thought a number of other lawmakers who had not signed the letter would still vote in their favour. To get a majority vote in Congress, 218 votes are required.
Sources and References
Mary Tyler Moore stem cell letter
206 House members send letter to Bush asking him to expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research
Congress Members Urge Bush Change Stem-Cell Policy
Looser Rules for Stem Cells Sought