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The Voice from Washington

Embryonic Stem-Cell Legislation Passes in House

By Christy Hahn
Assistant Director of Government Relations, PAN

Advocates for embryonic stem-cell research saw their efforts rewarded on Tuesday, May 24, when legislation expanding the current restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research was passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 238-194. The passage of this bill, called the Stem-Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, or HR 810, represents a bi-partisan victory for stem-cell research.

The staff and grassroots leaders of the Parkinson's Action Network (PAN), in partnership with other members of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR), have worked for months to ensure that this legislation was passed by Congress. The legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives earlier this year by Representative Michael Castle (R-DE), and quickly garnered 200 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle - mostly due to the efforts of Parkinson's patient advocates who seek the treatments that may come from this research.

HR 810 allows the federal government, through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to utilize the stem-cell lines derived from unused embryos created at in vitro fertilization clinics. These embryos created for fertility treatment would otherwise be discarded or, in some cases, frozen indefinitely. The bill requires that couples for whom the embryos were created must provide written consent to donate the embryos and may not receive any kind of financial compensation in return.

This bill was prompted by President Bush's policy announcement on August 9, 2001, which restricted the use of federal funds for research on human embryos to the 78 stem-cell lines that were in existence at that particular time. Unfortunately, many of the original 78 lines have proved to be of poor quality for research and, according to a 2004 letter to President Bush from CAMR, the number of viable lines is approximately 22. In fact, the approved lines may not be genetically diverse enough to produce therapies that address the medical needs of the American people. In addition, the 22 available lines are contaminated with mouse feeder cells, which precludes therapeutic use in humans.

Meanwhile, officials at the NIH itself have begun to express their opinions that restrictions on federally-funded embryonic stem-cell research are hindering advances in science. At a recent hearing of the Senate Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee, the directors of several NIH agencies (including the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development) reported through written and oral testimony that the approved stem-cell lines are of poor quality and difficult to obtain.

The idea of using stem cells for research purposes - and easing federal restrictions on the use of those cells - is strongly supported by the public. In March, CAMR commissioned a poll which showed that almost 60 percent of Americans favored embryonic stem-cell research while only 33 percent opposed it. Moreover, after a brief description of the research was read to the respondent, the percentage in favor increased to 68 percent - showing that the more respondents learned about this important research, the more they supported its use to help treat some of the most debilitating diseases and conditions, including PD.

HR 810 and S 471 (an identical bill in the Senate that has not yet been voted on, also named The Stem-Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005) address the disparity between the current state of stem-cell research and the public's desire to see it move forward. The legislation also requires that the Secretary of Health and Human Services provide an annual report to Congress on the current state of research that was conducted as a result of the legislation. While we celebrate the passage of HR 810 and applaud the hard work of advocates across the nation, we urge you to continue focusing your efforts on securing bipartisan passage of S 471 in the Senate.

Once a favorable vote is secured in both the House and the Senate, the bill will then go to President Bush who can determine if it becomes law. The media has reported that the President will veto this bill if it is passed by the Senate, and supporters of the bill take the veto threat seriously. However, we believe that the increasing public support for this research may ultimately result in a favorable policy.

We ask you to join the many Parkinson's advocates who are working tirelessly to educate their Senators about embryonic stem-cell research. You can do this by meeting with your Senators and their staffs in Washington, DC, and in their home districts, to provide background information and to express your support for embryonic stem-cell research. In addition, you might consider writing an opinion article for your local newspapers about the promise that this research holds for people suffering from diseases like Parkinson's, and using the Legislative Action Center on the PAN website at www.parkinsonsaction.org to send emails directly to Members of Congress. The Legislative Action Center can also be used to find district offices and get more information about House and Senate bills.

Founded in 1991 and based in Washington, DC, PAN is the unified education and advocacy voice of the Parkinson's community. PDF uses an important part of your contributions to support PAN - $150,000 in the current year. For more information on how you can join PAN and be an advocate in the Parkinson's community, please visit the PAN website or call (800) 850-4726.