Capitol Hill stem-cell backers received health industry dollars

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U.S. representatives and senators who strongly pushed for federally subsidized embryonic stem cell research have received more than $4 million in contributions from the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, which stand to benefit from that research, according to a Public i review of campaign donations in the last three election cycles.

Members of Congress who are opposed to such government support also collected money from these industries, but not nearly as much as those who are now backing the experiments.

The opponents also received several thousand dollars from groups fighting embryonic stem cell research — but again, these amounts do not approach the hundreds of thousands of dollars that the pharmaceutical and biotech industries gave the other side.

President Bush announced Aug. 9 that the federal government would pay for a limited amount of research on stem cells from human embryos. The government will spend $250 million this year, Bush said.

Two of the strongest backers of the government-funded stem cell research are Senators Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. Harkin is the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, which approves most health programs. Specter is the subcommittee’s ranking member.

The two introduced legislation in April 2001 that would allow companies to use federal money to derive stem cells from embryos, as well as use them in subsequent research. They introduced similar legislation in 2000. From 1995 to 2000, Specter received $207,080 in campaign donations from political action committees and individuals in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

The Pennsylvania Republicans second-largest campaign patron since 1995 has been Amgen, the worlds largest biotech company, based in Thousand Oaks, Calif. In the last three election cycles, its employees gave the senator $55,500.

In the last six years, Harkin received $54,307 from the biotech and pharmaceutical industries.

Hatch helped by biotech money

Another senator championing federal governmental aid for stem cell research is Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a staunch opponent of abortion. Hatch was the top recipient of contributions from the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, which gave $337,870 to his campaign war chest. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Utah Republican was the number one recipient of money from the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry in the 2000 election cycle, when he ran for re-election. His $278,024 total topped that of all candidates for federal office, including George W. Bush, who received $267,633 from those interests.

Among Hatch’s major donors are pharmaceutical giant Pfizer ($33,000); the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, an industry trade group and lobbying arm ($18,775); and health care provider HealthSouth Corp. ($38,255).

Stating that stem cell research is consistent with his pro-life and pro-family position, Hatch said the research could be a boon to the more than 100 million Americans sick with various debilitating, often hereditary diseases.

He urged Bush, in a letter dated June 13, to allow continued federal funding of this “vital research.” The senator wrote a similar letter to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson.

Frist plan is limited

Another influential lawmaker who supports embryonic stem cell research in some form is Senator Bill Frist, R-Tenn. The first practicing physician to be elected to the Senate since 1928 and one who has performed more than 200 heart and lung transplants, Frist received $161,873 in contributions from pharmaceutical and biotech companies and their employees between 1995 and 2000.

The Tennessee Republican recently told a Senate panel that he favors the research, albeit in a limited way. Under a plan he proposed, experiments would be limited to embryos developed through in vitro fertilization procedures that otherwise would be discarded, but only with consent from donors. The Frist plan would prohibit the laboratory creation of embryos for research. Bush ultimately decided on a more restrictive policy than the one Frist proposed.

A close ally of Bush, Frist is said to be advising the president on health policies. Bush’s point person on health policy, Anne Phelps, is a former aide to Frist. Phelps, special assistant to the president for domestic policy (health), also worked on the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health, and in the NIH director’s office on legislative policy and analysis.

Research opponents received less

The main congressional opponents of federal funding are Senator Sam Brownback, R-Kan., Representative Dave Weldon, R-Fla., and GOP House leaders Tom DeLay, R-Texas, Dick Armey, R-Texas, and J.C. Watts, R-Okla.

Brownback, who has argued that the research is “illegal, immoral, and unnecessary,” received $33,500 from the pharmaceutical manufacturing and biotech industries from 1995 to 2000. Weldon received just $1,000 from these industries. In the same period, DeLay netted $32,500, while Armey received $15,454 and Watts $11,000.

Stem cell research is opposed mainly by pro-life Republican and conservative groups. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, during 1995-2000 Brownback received $15,408 from “pro-life” groups and $69,494 from a category broadly termed as “Republican/conservative.”

In the last election cycle, pro-life groups contributed $2,200 to Armey and $5,000 to Weldon. Watts received $64,151 from the “Republican/conservative” category in the 2000 election cycle. During the same period, Armey raised $52,693 from this group, while Weldon received $14,572 and DeLay $13,983.

Congressional ban enacted in 1999

In 1999, Congress banned federal funding for any research that destroys human embryos. The following year, the Clinton administration got around the congressional ban by announcing that federal funds could be spent on stem cell research, as long as private funds paid for the destruction of embryos and the removal of their cells.

The Bush administration put a hold on that policy in April 2001, when Health and Human Services announced that it was reviewing the legal basis for the stem cell research.

Many conservative and religious groups consider research on human embryos immoral and unethical. Proponents of the research believe it could lead to treatments or cures of some debilitating and life-threatening diseases. They say embryonic stem cells might ultimately yield therapies for heart failure, diabetes, osteoarthritis and neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

Market could be worth billions

If the cell therapies are found effective, they are expected to create a market for biotech and drug companies potentially worth billions of dollars.

The April 2001 HHS decision prompted an array of medical research groups, patients organizations and some universities to form a coalition to lobby the government for support. The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research — whose founding members include the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International, the American Society for Cell Biology, the Parkinson’s Action Network, Harvard University, the University of Wisconsin, Washington University, the Association of American Medical Colleges and the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation — wants to ensure that federal funding is available for stem cell research.

Senate bill introduced

To that end, Specter and Harkin introduced a bill on April 5, 2001, that would allow the federal government to “conduct, support, or fund research on human embryos for the purpose of generating embryonic stem cells . . .” The bill would eliminate the ban on federal funds paying for the destruction of embryos.

The legislation was co-sponsored by Gordon Smith, R-Ore., (who received $49,200 from the biotech industry and pharmaceutical manufacturers); Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., ($43,500); Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., ($39,000); Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., ($36,000); Patty Murray, D-Wash., ($31,183); John Kerry, D-Mass., ($27,555); Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., ($21,700); Strom Thurmond , R-S.C., ($21,500); Harry Reid, D-Nev. ($10,800); Jon Corzine, D-N.J. ($2,375); and Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii ($2,000).

After the Bush administration ordered the review of federal funding, several Senate backers of the research made concerted efforts to allow continued federal funding by lobbying the White House and writing letters to the president and to Secretary Thompson.

On July 20, some 59 senators, including 11 Republicans, wrote Bush, urging him to allow the federal funding. “This research has tremendous promise to lead to possible cures and treatments for many devastating diseases, and it cannot afford to be delayed,” they wrote.

House moves

Legislative moves to fund embryonic stem cell research were afoot in the House, too. On June 5, 2001, Representative Jim McDermott, D-Wash., introduced a bill that would lift the congressional ban on research that requires the destruction of embryos. The “Stem Cell Research Act of 2001,” similar to the Specter-Harkin bill in content, is co-sponsored by some 27 members of the House.

Also, House backers have been circulating a letter urging the president to allow the federal financing. By the end of July, more than 200 lawmakers had signed one circulated by Representatives Diana DeGette, D-Colo., and Jim Ramstad, R-Minn.

A number of members of Congress who are endorsing the bill and the letter campaign received a substantial amount from the biotech and pharmaceutical industries in the last election cycle. The Public i reviewed the campaign contributions of House members for the 1998-2000 election cycle.

McDermott received $11,500 from the pharmaceutical manufacturers and the biotech industry. During the same period, Ramstad, who raised $105,245 from health interests, his second-largest contributor, received $12,795 from the two industries. DeGette raised $3,000 from the same groups.

Representative Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash., another conservative who joined more than 30 other Republicans in urging the president not to ban federal funding, received $33,040 from biotech and pharmaceutical interests.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., who backs the funding, received $114,500 from the pharmaceutical and biotech industries in the 2000 election cycle. Among lawmakers in the House and Senate, only Hatch has received more money from these two groups. The contributions that the California congressman received from the health sector totaled $430,705.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry gave $6,383,285 in campaign donations in the 2000 election cycle, 73 percent of which went to Republicans and 26 percent to Democrats. All together, 190 House Republicans and 147 House Democrats were beneficiaries of the industry’s largesse. In the evenly divided Senate, 36 Democrats and 37 Republicans received campaign donations from the industry. An average GOP House member received $10,994, and a senator $28,454, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The average for the Democrats was $5,840 in the House and $12,443 in the Senate.

During 1995-2000, the PAC and individual contributions from pharmaceutical manufacturing and biotech industries to U.S. senators totaled $3,669,659. Nearly two-thirds of the amount, $2,381,619, went to Republican senators, while Democrats received $1,288,040. The same interests gave $3,066,408 to current House members in the last election cycle, with the Republicans getting bulk of it, $2,145,279. The Democrats netted $916,879.

Stem Cell Research: Questions and Answers

Q: What is the next step for stem cell research?

A: President Bush has allowed federal funding for embryonic stem cell research only if researchers use 64 existing lines of stem cells, already extracted from destroyed embryos. These lines have the ability to regenerate themselves indefinitely. However, some researchers have cast doubt on as many as one-third of the 64 stem-cell colonies, questioning whether they are sturdy enough to be useful.

Q: What are stem cell lines?

A: That’s the term for a group of isolated stem cells grown in the lab, derived from the original cell, sharing genetic characteristics. There are reportedly 10 laboratories in the United States, Australia, India, Israel and Sweden that possess these lines.

Q: What are the guidelines for federal funding?

A: Stem cells may be used if scientists have the informed consent of the donors, if the lines are from excess embryos created for reproductive purposes and if there has been no financial inducement to the donors.

Q: Why was it Bush’s decision to make?

A. According to the National Institutes of Health, Bush suspended the NIHs guidelines for allowing federally funded research on stem cells harvested by private researchers from embryos created during in vitro fertilization. After ordering a scientific and ethical review of stem cell research, Bush chose to make the decision himself.

Q: How much money was allotted and who owns the existing lines of stem cells?

A: Under Bush’s policy, $250 million has been allocated. The Geron Corp., of Menlo Park, Calif., BresaGen,Inc., an Australia-based company with labs in Athens, Ga., and ES Cell International, of Australia, own 17 of the existing lines. Their identities were disclosed during an NIH press conference held by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. The NIH has not disclosed other names since the information is proprietary, according to an NIH spokesman.

Q: What is President Bush doing to ensure that no other stem cells will be used outside of the already existing lines?

A: The NIH says it plans to look at the source of the existing stem cell lines and create a registry. Bush has created a Presidents Council on Bioethics, chaired by Leon Kass, an expert in biomedical ethics and a professor at the University of Chicago. Kass and his team will examine embryo and stem cell research, assisted reproduction, cloning, genetic screening, gene therapy and other ethical biomedical issues.

Q: What is Congress’ role?

A: Congress could pass legislation overturning President Bush’s decision, but it would be subject to a presidential veto. It will be clearer what the Senate and the House will decide to do when both chambers reconvene in September, according to sources in Congress.

Sources: NIH and White House Fact Sheet

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