June 29, 2005

Senators expect stem cell debate in July

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Senate health panel on Wednesdayapproved a bill that would establish a national network toexpand access to umbilical cord blood for research, one ofseveral bills on bioethical issues likely to be debated nextmonth in the fight over embryonic stem cell research.

President Bush has vowed to veto any expansion of federallyfunded embryonic stem cell research. But the House easilyapproved such legislation in May, and supporters of the Senatebill predict a strong bipartisan victory in July.

"This legislation aims to significantly increase apatient's chance of finding a suitable genetic match when facedwith a grave disease," said Connecticut Democratic Sen. ChrisDodd as the Senate Health, Education Labor and PensionCommittee approved the bill.

Cells derived from umbilical cord blood is used to treatleukemia, sickle cell anemia and other illnesses.

The legislation would establish a national cord bloodnetwork and aim to have 150,000 units banked. It also updatesrules governing a bone marrow donor program.

Far more controversial is another bill to allow federallyfunded research of stem cells derived from excess embryos infrozen storage at fertility clinics.

Foes of the legislation believe it is unethical to destroya human embryo to extract the stem cells. But backers like UtahRepublican Sen. Orrin Hatch, an opponent of abortion rights,say it would be wrong not to pursue stem cell research thatcould produce treatments or cures for diseases such as diabetesor Parkinson's.

"We have to take care of the living as well as the unborn,"Hatch said.

Stem cells have the ability to transform themselves intomany types of cells, offering the potential for regeneratingdamaged organs or tissue.

In 2001 Bush allowed federal funding on a limited number ofexisting stem cell lines. But only a few proved useful forresearch and all are contaminated.

Several lawmakers who oppose embryonic stem cell researchsay they will try to get alternative measures before theSenate. Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn said he plans tooffer amendments that would promote research into ways of usingstem cells without destroying an embryo.

Kansas Republican Sen. Sam Brownback said he wanted a voteon his bill to ban cloning, and perhaps also to ban chimeras,or human-animal mixes.

"I want to see us vote on several of these bioethicalissues," Brownback said. "These topics are all linked, and thedebate could take some time and be quite interesting."