The dramatic change in the US political landscape after Tuesday’s midterm elections will likely have a big effect on stem-cell research, experts say.
Researchers who work on embryonic stem cells stand to benefit from a tide of voter anger that swept Republicans out of power in the House of Representatives and the Senate, handing control to the Democrats, according to latest reports.
Democrat representative Nancy Pelosi, who is set to become speaker of the House, has already promised to broaden the types of stem-cell research allowed with federal funds in the first 100 hours of her majority leadership, which is set to begin in January 2007.
Nowhere was the stem-cell issue more hotly contested than in Missouri. There, voters narrowly elected Democrat Claire McCaskill to be its senator after she had made support for stem-cell research a key plank in her policy platform. An ad commissioned by the McCaskill campaign featuring actor Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, drew national attention when right-wing broadcaster Rush Limbaugh suggested Fox was playing up his symptoms for the camera. Limbaugh was later forced to apologise.
Missouri voters also approved an amendment to the state’s constitution sanctioning human embryonic stem-cell research by a 51% majority.
Research to expand
The Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Missouri, which hopes to recruit prominent scientists who work with human stem cells, says that the outcome will improve its ability to expand its staff. A statement issued by the institute said that the approval of the stem-cell initiative will help it “compete globally for the highest echelons of scientific talent”.
“If it had failed, Missouri would have looked bad,” says Michael Roberts of the University of Missouri-Columbia, who studies human embryo development using federally approved stem-cell lines. He adds that the outcome makes the state appear “more forward-looking and allows more investment”.
The Missouri constitutional amendment is important because it ensures that lawmakers cannot pass future laws that prohibit human stem-cell research in the state. “There was a great deal of concern that they could put random restrictions on the type of stem-cell research we could do in Missouri,” says Michael Howard at the Washington University in St Louis School of Medicine. Howard conducts research on spinal-cord injury using mouse embryonic stem cells.
Will Congress try again?
A legislature with more pro-stem-cell politicians such as McCaskill might try to pass a bill approving federally funded research on more stem cell lines than currently allowed. However, such a bill would be unlikely to gain the two-thirds majority required in both the House and Senate to overcome a presidential veto such as the one used against an earlier stem cell bill in July. (See Bush vetoes stem cell bill, to scientists’ dismay).
“We’ll have to see how the president responds,” says Larry Goldstein of the International Society for Stem Cell Research. “I have no reason to think he’s going to change his mind.”
Some hope, however, that the public support for stem-cell research seen in the polls will restrain President Bush from exercising his veto again. “Ultimately there will be pressure on the executive branch to change,” says Roberts.
NewScientist.com news service