Election Results Put Funds for NIH, Stem Cell Research in Peril

In the wake of last night's electoral upheaval, National Institutes of Health boosters are hoping that the lame-duck Congress will approve House of Representatives and Senate spending bills that would give NIH a $1 billion boost over 2010. They say that would be better than two other options open to federal lawmakers: a continuing resolution holding funding at FY 2010 levels for the entire year, or action by the next Congress on the Republican pledge to lower overall federal spending to 2008 levels.

Another key biomedical issue is whether Congress will pass a bill that would codify NIH's guidelines for human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research and negate a lawsuit challenging their legality. The hope is that two retiring members, Representative Mike Castle (R–DE) and Senator Arlen Specter (D–PA), will lead the charge during the lame-duck session that convenes in 2 weeks. (The cause could gain momentum if the courts rule in the next few weeks that the guidelines are illegal.)

If that doesn't happen, however, prospects will be dimmer in the next Congress.

"I don't think it's going to be a priority for them," says Jennifer Zeitzer of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland. Her bottom line: "The outlook for stem cells is even less certain now than it was yesterday."

In other stem cell news, Colorado voters soundly defeated a "Personhood" amendment that would have defined a person as "every human being from the beginning of the biological development of that human being." The constitutional amendment would have made hESC research illegal in the state. The amendment lost by a 3-to-1 margin, duplicating the 2008 defeat of an earlier version of the initiative.

Wisconsin voters elected Republican Scott Walker as their next governor. Walker, who defeated Democrat Tom Barrett 52% to 47%, told abortion opponents last spring that he supported a ban on hESC research. But more recently he backed away from that position and said he would redirect state funding for hESC research, which is negligible to adult stem cells. The state's hESC scientists spoke out before the election in defense of their research.

Wisconsin voters also elected a new U.S. senator who opposes federal funding for hESC research. Republican Ron Johnson, a wealthy businessman who appealed to Tea Party activists, defeated incumbent Democrat Russ Feingold 52% to 47%. Johnson said he wants to defund hESC work for moral reasons and to help balance the federal budget. Feingold was a supporter of hESC research.