Senate Ponders Several Stem-Cell Bills

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In the wake of Senator Frist's comments on stem-cell research, Michele Norris talks with NPR's Julie Rovner about the specifics in each of the stem-cell bills being considered by the Senate.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

So the stem cell debate in the Senate has been complicated by the fact that Majority Leader Frist says he wants senators to consider a half a dozen different bills. To sort out what Congress is actually considering, we turn to NPR's Julie Rovner.

Julie, let's start at the beginning. What's the current policy on federal funding of stem cell research?

JULIE ROVNER reporting:

Well, there's two basic kinds of stem cells. There are adult stem cells. These don't really have any ethical concerns. That is fully fundable. Then there are embryonic stem cells, stem cells that were taken from human embryos. According to the policy the president put out in August of 2001, that is fundable but only to the cell lines that were already in existence as of that date. And that's turned out to be about two dozen cell lines.

NORRIS: The House passed a bill to expand funding for embryonic stem cell research. They did that back in May. How would that change the policy?

ROVNER: Well, it would expand the availability of cell lines for embryonic stem cell research. It basically says that you can use cell lines that are derived from human embryos left over from in vitro fertilization attempts. The bill also includes protections, for instance, that no money would change hands in this, so the embryos would have to be donated. And it would not allow federal funding for the actual destruction of the embryos, but it would allow funding for the research on cell lines after those embryos are destroyed.

NORRIS: There are some Republicans who are uncomfortable with that much of an expansion. And are they proposing an alternative?

ROVNER: Yes, there's a couple of alternatives out there. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas has talked about a bill that would allow research on stem cell lines from embryos that are already in storage. But it would not allow research on cell lines derived from any embryos created after the date of enactment. So, basically, she says that would prevent the rise of an industry to create embryos for their destruction for research.

Then there are some Republicans who are talking about another possibility, which is a way to do embryonic stem cell research without actually destroying embryos, by perhaps taking a cell out of an embryo but leaving the embryo alive. But it's still extremely speculative, and sponsors worry that both of these bills would hinder research by really putting it off.

NORRIS: And there are Republicans who want to make the current policy more restrictive.

ROVNER: That's right. There are Republicans who believe that the president's policy, restrictive as it is, went too far. Senator Sam Brownback has two bills that Senator Frist has suggested could also be debated in the context of this. One of them would ban human cloning. Now that would be human cloning intended to produce a baby, which just about everybody opposes. But it would also ban human cloning to make embryos to derive their stem cells for research, so this really is somewhat related. Scientists say that if embryonic stem cell research is ultimately to produce treatments, that you're going to have to get the patient's own stem cells to do it. There's hope that that will be able to be done without creating an embryo, but at the moment that's really not necessarily the case.

Senator Brownback also has a second bill that would ban human chimeras; that that is, human-animal hybrids. That will would also ban both implantation of an animal embryo into a human and the implantation of a human embryo into an animal. These bills would make these activities illegal; it wouldn't just say the federal government couldn't fund them. In fact, the chimera bill has a million-dollar fine.

NORRIS: So with all of these bills on this very controversial subject, are there any areas of agreement on stem cell research?

ROVNER: Yes, actually there is, and that's the last bill. The same day the House passed its embryonic stem cell funding expansion bill, it also passed overwhelmingly a bill to provide $79 million for research into stem cells from umbilical cord blood, which scientists have also found to be quite promising, although perhaps not as promising as embryonic stem cell research. The Senate has a similar bill, and that's likely to come up and pass in the context of this.

NORRIS: Thank you, Julie.

ROVNER: You're welcome.

NORRIS: NPR's Julie Rovner.

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