- The Washington Times - Friday, October 1, 2004

Stem-cell research continues to be a fiercely debated topic, and a contentious California ballot initiative designed to skirt President Bush’s embryonic stem-cell policy is adding fuel to the fire this election year.

The ballot initiative — which would provide $3 billion in state funds for both adult and embryonic stem-cell research — was the focus of intense debate during a panel discussion sponsored by Scientific American magazine Wednesday morning on how best to move forward nationally on stem-cell research. It came up again in a Senate stem-cell hearing later that day.

California state Sen. Deborah Ortiz, Sacramento Democrat, who sat on the morning panel and is pushing the initiative, repeatedly stressed that it would fund all types of stem-cell research — not just embryonic.

But Dr. William B. Hurlbut, biology professor at Stanford University and a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, said Ms. Ortiz and other proponents are avoiding the main purpose of the initiative, which is to fund creation of human embryos to be destroyed in research, and to essentially sidestep President Bush’s 2001 policy. He granted federal funding to embryonic stem-cell research for the first time, but limited it to a group of stem-cell lines already created.

“It is disingenuous to obfuscate” the purpose, he told her, adding that the California initiative would encourage the creation of cloned human embryos for research. “I think you don’t want to admit this is therapeutic cloning that will be used in California.”

Later in the day, at a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee hearing on stem-cell research, Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, said pressure is building for Mr. Bush to revisit his stem-cell policy, because many new embryonic stem-cell lines have been created since 2001, but don’t qualify for federal funding.

Mr. Wyden said states such as California will push ahead with their own public funding because “they are responding to the abysmal performance of the federal government.”

But other experts said clearly the best course is to focus on adult stem-cell research, which is currently producing treatments where embryonic stem-cell research has not, and avoids the thorny ethical debate over destroying human embryos for research.

“Adult stem-cell research is the best science and is thoroughly moral at the same time,” said David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council. Mr. Prentice, who spoke at both events, cited more than 45 treatments being used from adult stem cells, including cells from fat being used to repair heart damage.

Ms. Ortiz said more money is desperately needed for embryonic stem-cell research, because Mr. Bush’s policy is simply too limited for this new field.

“We have been waiting since 2001,” she said, warning that the United States could “lose our place as world leaders” in medical research if it waits too long to loosen the limits.

The text of the California funding initiative states that embryos for the research could be derived either from human embryos left over at in vitro fertilization clinics or those created using the cloning process.

Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, told the morning panel that the federal government is providing about $190 million for adult stem-cell research and $25 million for embryonic stem-cell research.

But Ms. Ortiz predicted the Bush administration will revisit its 2001 stem-cell policy after the election if the Republicans win, perhaps expanding it. The administration can’t do this before the election because it risks angering its conservative base, she said.

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