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Bush vetoes federal stem cell funding: an opportunity for Europe?

US President George W Bush has used his power of veto over a Senate decision for the first time, on the issue of embryonic stem cell research. 'It crosses a moral boundary that our decent society needs to respect, so I vetoed it,' said Mr Bush on 19 July. The Bill would ha...

US President George W Bush has used his power of veto over a Senate decision for the first time, on the issue of embryonic stem cell research. 'It crosses a moral boundary that our decent society needs to respect, so I vetoed it,' said Mr Bush on 19 July. The Bill would have lifted the existing restrictions on the federal funding of research on embryonic stem cell lines, as well as on the creation of new cell lines from frozen embryos considered surplus in fertility clinics. Stem cells are undifferentiated and 'pluripotent' - they can grow into any type of human cell. Unlocking the secrets of stem cells could provide effective treatments for degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's in the short term, but a host of other ailments in the long-term - the potential is huge, making this a very exciting field. Stem cells from embryos provide a very high quality resource of stem cells. The decision is consistent with Mr Bush's moral standpoint on embryonic stem cell research. In 2001, Mr Bush called a moratorium on federal funding of research using stem cell lines created after 11 August of that year. At the time there were considered to be 70-80 viable stem cell lines. Since then it has been discovered that only about 20 of those lines are useful for research. Meanwhile, privately funded researchers in the US and researchers elsewhere in the world have created new and better lines. The Senate's decision was a couple of votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to take the legislation beyond Presidential veto. The House of Representatives held an emergency vote to overturn Mr Bush's veto, but also failed to reach the two-thirds majority required. CORDIS News spoke to Austin Smith, coordinator of the EuroStemCell project and MRC Research Professor of Stem Cell Biology, University of Edinburgh - an acknowledged world leader in the field of stem cell research, for his reaction to the news. At first glance, maintaining the restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research in the US could be an opportunity for European researchers. Not so, says Professor Smith. 'It is equally likely it could make a worse situation for scientists by strengthening opinion against this research. With the [EU Competitiveness Council] next week, if the US opposes this, then those who oppose here could take the moral high ground,' he says. Mr Bush's views match very closely those of the Catholic Church, which has been a vigorous critic of embryonic stem cell research. It seems that Pope Jean-Paul II and Mr Bush reached an accord during their meeting in 2001. Mr Bush introduced the moratorium on embryonic stem cell research shortly afterwards. Both the Catholic Church and Mr Bush now condemn the use of embryonic stem cells for research. Professor Smith pointed out that Mr Bush's veto of the legislation does not make embryonic stem cell research illegal in the US. It simply serves to maintain the restrictions on federal funding. Many States, most notably California which has just approved a large sum for stem cell research, have launched their own stem cell funding initiatives, and private companies are free to carry out their own research. According to Professor Smith, the restrictions on federal funding affect 'just NIH [National Institutes for Health] funding, and other funding streams will fill that gap. Already this has been done in Boston, and done when there is a state discrepancy with government position. Different states provide their own funds for instance in California, New York and Minnesota,' he said. Professor Smith points out that there is also fragmentation in Europe. 'The UK is strongly positive, and this is the case in Sweden and Spain as well, but in other countries, such as Ireland, Italy, Poland, there is less enthusiasm because of the strong influence of the Catholic church. Germany also has a unique problem because of the war history and the Catholic church,' he said. 'It makes things complicated for the Commission,' said Professor Smith. 'Those divisions could be strengthened rather than eroded. On the one hand it looks like it could be good news, but in reality, it is bad for science, not good for us in the long term, and even in the short term. For such important work, people need to work together, and need to get on without political issues around everything,' he said. However, Professor Smith concedes that should the attitude towards stem cell research in Europe remain broadly positive, then there will be clear advantages for researchers. 'At one level this gives us an advantage - not financial, but an advantage in having a consistent policy, and scientists who are not asked questions or tainted by working in this area,' he said. Mr Bush's veto maintains existing restrictions on US Government spending on embryonic stem cell lines. A second bill passed by the Senate, approving funding for promising new research that could produce embryos with the ability of embryonic cells, but without the destruction of human embryos, was not presented to the President since it had not received a majority in the House. The President signed a third bill banning 'embryo farming', which could create foetuses specifically for their organs. Mr Bush announced his veto decision at a press conference in Washington, attended by 'snowflake babies' and their mothers. Snowflake babies are produced when mothers 'adopt' frozen embryos, surplus from IVF treatments on third parties, had the embryos implanted and then given birth. Mr Bush finds snowflake babies a powerful argument for prohibiting research into embryonic stem cells. 'This bill would support the taking of innocent human life of the hope of finding medical benefits for others,' he said. 'Each of these children was still adopted while still an embryo and has been blessed with a chance to grow, to grow up in a loving family. These boys and girls are not spare parts,' he said. Mr Bush's stance could anger many from his own Republican, party, which was been split on this issue. Former Republican president Ronald Reagan died from complications from Alzheimer's disease, an illness where stem cell treatments are considered likely to produce results. Mr Reagan's wife Nancy has been a driving force behind the pro-stem cell research lobby in the US.

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