Stem Cell Battle Heats Up

Biomedical and scientific groups have begun an intense lobbying effort to persuade Congress to resist a conservative campaign aimed at blocking federal support for human stem cell research. Both sides are expected to clash on Capitol Hill in coming weeks. The first skirmishes could occur as soon as 23 and 24 February, when Donna Shalala, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), and Harold Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), appear before congressional appropriations committees to defend their 2000 budget proposals.

The row erupted this week as conservative members of the House and Senate, demanding a change in policy, sent angry letters to the Clinton Administration. The conservatives attacked an HHS-NIH decision to fund research on human stem cells. These cells, which scientists hope to develop into a variety of transplantable tissues, are derived from aborted fetuses and "spare" human embryos in fertility clinics. In a 16 February letter to Shalala, eight Republican senators, including Sam Brownback of Texas and Jesse Helms of North Carolina, expressed their fear that this research might "give incentives for the killing of human embryos."

Five days earlier, 70 House members led by abortion opponent Jay Dickey (R-AR) had written an equally harsh letter to Shalala, complaining that HHS is misreading a recent law that bans U.S. funding of research that involves the destruction of human embryos. In January, HHS ruled that the law does not apply to embryonic stem cells because they cannot develop naturally into embryos. Indeed, Varmus announced on 19 January that researchers might soon be funded to study these cells (Science, 22 January, p. 465). But members of the Dickey group--which includes prominent Republican conservatives such as Henry Hyde (IL), Richard Armey (TX), and Tom DeLay (TX)--disagree vehemently. HHS has read the law too narrowly, they claim; Congress intended to block not just embryo destruction but also "research which follows or depends upon the destruction of or injury to a human embryo."

Neither Shalala nor Varmus has yet responded to the conservative appeals. But today, 70 scientific, academic, and patient groups have sent a petition to Congress, drafted by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), that argues in favor of stem cell research. This field, the AAMC communication says, holds "enormous potential for the treatment of many diseases" and should be allowed to move forward.