Congress registers its support for human embryonic stem-cell research

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As the National Institutes of Health fights in court for permission to resume long-term funding for research involving human embryonic stem cells, some members of Congress are coming to the agency’s defense with a proposal to make President Obama’s stem-cell funding policy the law of the land.

Monday in Washington, D.C., Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Penn.) spoke in favor of the Stem Cell Research Advancement Act. This bill would make clear Congress’ intent to allow federal funds to be used on the promising research, which is controversial because the cells themselves are derived from days-old human embryos, which are destroyed in the process.

The bill has passed Congress twice – in 2005 and in 2007 – but was vetoed both times by President Bush. It was re-introduced in February 2009, but action on it stalled after Obama expanded stem-cell funding through an executive order.

Here’s some of what Specter had to say:

“More than 400,000 embryos are stored in fertility clinics around the country. If these frozen embryos were going to be used for in vitro fertilization, I would be the first to support it. In fact, I have included funding in the HHS budget each year since 2002 to create and continue an embryo adoption awareness campaign. For fiscal year 2010, this campaign is funded at $4.2 million. But the truth is that most of these embryos will be discarded, while they hold the key to curing and treating diseases that cause suffering for millions of people.”

This is the reasoning behind Obama’s stem-cell policy – why let those excess embryos go to waste? But last month, U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth disagreed. In a ruling issued as part of a lawsuit that seeks to end Obama’s policy, the judge said that the Dickey-Wicker amendment forbids the federal government from paying for research in which human embryos are harmed or destroyed, including stem-cell research. An appeals court temporarily blocked Lamberth’s ruling last week.

But in his statement, Specter emphasizes that Congress did not intend for the Dickey-Wicker amendment to preclude funding for human embryonic stem-cell research. Everyone agrees that the law prevents the federal government from paying scientists to create the stem cells. But once created, the cells themselves are supposed to be eligible for NIH funding, Specter says.

As proof of Congress’s intent, he cites his own floor statement from 1999:

“In that statement, I explained that the budget for NIH maintained the Dickey-Wicker amendment by permitting research to go forward now with private funding extracting the stem cells from embryos, and then the federal funding coming in on the stem cells which have been extracted.”

That squares with the legal analysis conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services, which runs the NIH. It’s 1999 legal opinion states that:

“Pluripotent stem cells [including human embryonic stem cells] are not organisms and do not have the capacity to develop into an organism that could perform all the life functions of a human being. They are, rather, human cells that have the potential to evolve into different types of cells such as blood cells or insulin-producing cells. Pluripotent stem cells do not have the capacity to develop into a human being, even if transferred to a uterus. Based on an analysis of the relevant law and scientific facts, federally funded research that utilizes human pluripotent stem cells would not be prohibited by the HHS appropriations law prohibiting human embryo research, because such stem cells are not human embryos.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who re-introduced the Stem Cell Research Advancement Act last year, is planning to hold a hearing this Thursday titled “The Promise of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research.” Among those scheduled to testify are NIH Director Francis Collins and researchers Sean Morrison, director of the Center for Stem Cell Biology at the University of Michigan, and Dr. George Daley, director of the Stem Cell Transplantation Program at Children’s Hospital Boston.

The hearing begins at 10 a.m. EDT and will be webcast at

-- Karen Kaplan/Los Angeles Times