WASHINGTON – The author of a study on amniotic stem cells urged Congress on Tuesday not to consider his work a substitute for the search for disease-fighting material from embryonic stem cells.
"Some may be interpreting my research as a substitute for the need to pursue other forms of regenerative medicine therapies, such as those involving embryonic stem cells. I disagree with that assertion," wrote Anthony Atala of Wake Forest University, the author of a study published this week and widely seized upon by opponents of embryonic stem cell research as a more moral option.
Atala and other researchers reported Sunday that the stem cells they drew from amniotic fluid donated by pregnant women hold much the same promise as embryonic stem cells.
In a letter to sponsors of legislation up for a House vote Thursday, Atala wrote that it was "essential that National Institutes of Health-funded researchers are able to fully pursue embryonic stem cell research as a complement to research into other forms of stem cells."
The bill, which would clear the way for federally funded embryonic research, is expected to pass but without the required 2/3 majority required to override Bush's expected veto. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said he expects same bill to reach that veto-proof threshold when it comes up in his chamber in a few weeks.
Atala's study and the letter add a dose of drama to round two of Congress' battle with President Bush over whether taxpayers should fund embryonic stem cell research. Bush and a minority of Americans say believe the research is immoral because the process of culling the stem cells kills the embryo.
Opponents of the legislation, which Bush vetoed last year, say Atala's study bolsters their argument that science need not advance at the expense of budding human life.
"We're talking about saving lives here," said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., an obstetrician and staunch opponent of embryonic stem cell research. "We don't have to split the nation on this if we've got an alternative."
He won't have much luck peeling off support from the bill, said one of its sponsors. "We won't lose anyone who was going to support the bill," said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., one of her party's vote-counters in the House. In fact, she predicted, "several" lawmakers who voted against the bill in the last Congress will vote for it on Thursday.
The research reported this week suggests that stem cells extracted harmlessly from the amniotic fluid that cushions a fetus in-utero hold much the same promise for disease-fighting as embryonic stem cells. Scientists hope that someday stem cells may be used against diseases such as for Lou Gehrig's, diabetes, Alzheimer's and cancer.
Polls show Americans overwhelmingly support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. And scientists aren't sure that stem cells shed by a fetus and extracted from the surrounding fluid carry the same possibility for treatments and cures of diseases as those culled from embryos.
The scientific community says embryonic stem cells so far are backed by the most promising evidence that one day they might be used to grow replacements for damaged tissue, such as new insulin-producing cells for diabetics or new nerve connections to restore movement after spinal injury.
Whatever the effect of the discovery on the policy debate, Bush is all but certain to cast a second veto of the embryonic stem cell bill if it reaches his desk.
White House spokesman Tony Snow on Monday stopped short of issuing an endorsement of the amniotic process, but he made clear that Bush views it favorably.
"Obviously, there is a difference between using amniotic stem cells that do not, by design, involve the destruction of a human life, and embryonic stem cell research, which does," Snow told reporters.
Co-sponsored by DeGette and Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., the legislation would lift Bush's 2001 ban on federal dollars spent on deriving new stem cells from fertilized embryos. Bush cast the lone veto of his presidency against an identical stem cell bill six months ago, saying he did not want to destroy life in the name of science.
Embryonic stem cells are able to morph into any of the more than 220 cell types that make up the human body. They typically are culled from fertility-clinic leftovers otherwise destined to be thrown away. But because the culling kills the embryos, Bush on Aug. 9, 2001, restricted government funding to research using only the embryonic stem cell lines then in existence, groups of stem cells kept alive and propagating in lab dishes.