Supporters of a US bill to extend federal funding of research on human embryonic stem cell (ES cells) are predicting a victory when it is debated by Senators later this month. More than 60 are expected to vote in favour of the legislation, say its proponents - although President Bush has pledged to veto the bill, if passed. A two-thirds majority (67 votes) would be needed to override a presidential veto. Last week, Senator Orrin Hatch, one of the bill's supporters, was reported to be working on a compromise measure that would avoid a veto.
Many scientists believe that research on human ES cells will lead to new therapies for a host of diseases, including diabetes and Parkinson's disease. President Bush's policy on human ES cell research permits federally funded scientists to carry out research on cell lines created before 9 August 2001, but researchers have complained that this policy leaves only less effective cell lines for them to work on. A bill loosening the restrictions was passed by the House of Representatives in May, by 238 votes to 194 - not enough to allow a veto to be overridden. If passed by the Senate, the bill would allow federal funds to be used for research on new ES cell lines derived from embryos left over from fertility treatments and voluntarily donated by patients.
Senator Hatch has said that he is trying to come up with a compromise measure that Bush could still sign, without going back on his pledge to ban the use of taxpayer's money for research that involves the destruction of human embryos. The compromise ES cell bill 'would not utilise federal funds during the capture of stem cells but would use federal funds after the stem cells were captured', he told reporters last Wednesday. But Senators Tom Harkin and Gordon Smith and other supporters of the measure think that a strong Senate vote, coupled with strong public support, could persuade Bush to reconsider his position.
Several US states are enacting their own legislation to provide funding for ES cell research. Last week, the New Jersey Senate approved by 21-14 votes bill S 2649, which would allocate $150 million to the construction of a dedicated ES cell research centre. Senate President and acting Governor Richard Codey said the facility would 'help establish New Jersey as an international centre of excellence for stem cell research'. However, several groups opposed to the measure have threatened lawsuits if the bill is signed into law.
Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Assembly has approved by 59-38 votes a bill that would ban all forms of human cloning in the state, including cloning for research purposes. Anyone who contravened the law, if passed, could face up to ten years in prison and up to a $1 million fine. Before approving the measure, the Assembly removed a provision banning research involving parthenogenesis a process in which a female egg cell is stimulated to divide without fertilising it. However, it rejected by 56-42 votes an amendment that would have banned human reproductive cloning whilst allowing cloning for research purposes to proceed. Governor Jim Doyle has promised to veto the measure, saying 'my real concern is that this bill is really an attempt to in effect reach out and stop stem cell research'.