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The New York Times

Loosening the Stem Cell Binds

New York Times Editorial

The Senate easily approved a bill this week that would free embryonic stem cell research from the worst shackles imposed by the Bush administration. The House passed its version earlier. A substantial majority of Americans tell pollsters they support embryonic stem cell research. Yet one man, President Bush, and a minority of his party, the religious and social conservatives, are once again trying to impose their moral code on the rest of the nation and stand in the way of scientific progress.

Mr. Bush is threatening a veto, and neither house had enough votes for the bills on initial passage to override him. Concerned voters will need to ratchet up the pressure on recalcitrant Republicans to help stop the president from killing the second enlightened stem cell bill in less than a year.

Under the president's current policy, federal funds can be used to support research on only some 20 stem cell lines that have limited scientific value. Many of the lines are deteriorating or contaminated, and the group as a whole lacks the diversity needed to conduct a wide range of studies. There is no doubt that progress is being hampered. The director of the National Institutes of Health, who had initially been a good soldier in trying to live within the president's policy, told the Senate last month that American science would be better served if the nation let researchers have access to more stem cell lines.

The restrictions on federal financing have led to absurdly complicated and costly maneuvers. Scientists are forced to buy extra equipment and laboratory space with private money to perform off-limits research while using equipment and supplies bought with federal money on the permitted stem cell research. In a shocking example cited during Senate debate, a California researcher who had been cultivating stem cells in a makeshift privately financed lab suffered a power failure but was unable to transfer her lines into industrial-strength freezers in another lab because they were federally financed. Two years of work melted away because of this inanity.

The Senate bill would greatly expand the available stem cell lines by tapping into the thousands of surplus embryos left over at fertility clinics. The bill would allow federal support for research on stem cell lines derived from embryos originally created for fertility treatments but not needed for that purpose and thus doomed to be discarded. The donors would have to give their informed consent and could not receive any financial or other inducements to donate their surplus embryos. In a nod to the religious conservatives, the bill also calls for research on alternative techniques to derive stem cells without the use of human embryos, an approach that is certainly worth pursuing but is deemed less promising by most experts.

At the same time, the Senate passed a bill proposed by supporters of the president's policy that seeks to derive stem cells from embryos that might be judged "naturally dead," perhaps because they were considered unsuitable for transplantation at a fertility clinic. This is a poorly considered proposal that can only be deemed a diversion from the main business at hand - the need to free American science from the chains imposed by the president.

© Copyright 2007 The New York Times

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