Unlocking Stem Cells' Promise - Los Angeles Newspaper Groups

As a hockey player, the challenge for Todd Bischoff was to race down the ice and shoot at the goal. These days, just tying his shoes can be a challenge. That's because at 47, Bischoff has young-onset Parkinson's disease. The cause is unknown and there is no cure. The only thing this Ontario resident knows for sure: "Eventually, I'll become a prisoner in my own body."

But there is hope: Parkinson's mysteries might be unlocked through embryonic stem cell research. This research holds great promise because embryonic stem cells can become any kind of cell in the body.

Research could one day open the door to treatments or cures for Parkinson's, diabetes, cancer and spinal-cord injuries. But today, our stem cell researchers are handcuffed by an unworkable policy. It is time to change this.

A bill to broadly expand federally funded stem cell research is now moving through Congress. It passed the House by a wide margin in January and goes before the Senate soon. I hope my colleagues support it ñ and I hope President Bush signs it into law.

If you've watched Michael J. Fox fight Parkinson's, you can't help but admire his courage and dignity. If you've watched a loved one struggle with a debilitating disease, you know how important this research is.

The legislation is simple. It states that embryos set to be discarded from in-vitro fertilization clinics may be used in federally funded stem cell research.

It has many safeguards: Embryos used for research must be left over following fertility treatment and be destined to be discarded. Written consent from donors would be mandatory. Donors would not receive compensation. And researchers would have to meet the highest ethical standards.

The legislation would fill a gap created by the failed policies of the Bush administration.

In 2001, the president restricted federal funding to research on stem cell lines already in existence and set to be discarded. But what was predicted to be as many as 70 stem cell lines is today only 21. And all of them have been found to be contaminated and unfit for use in treatment.

Congress passed embryonic stem cell research legislation last year. But President Bush vetoed it ñ the first veto of his presidency.

The president's actions put American embryonic stem cell research at a disadvantage and spurred several top researchers to leave for labs in other countries.

They include:

Roger Pedersen, who left UC San Francisco in 2002 to head Cambridge University's stem cell institute.

Dr. Judith Swain and husband, Dr. Edward Holmes, dean of the UC San Diego School of Medicine, who both left UCSD to work at Singapore's state-funded research institute, Biopolis.

Internationally renowned cancer geneticists Neal Copeland and Nancy Jenkins, who also joined Biopolis, turning down offers to work at Stanford University.

Several states have sought to fill the void created by the Bush administration's restrictive policies. California is leading the way.

In 2004, California voters approved Proposition 71, creating the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, which plans to spend $3 billion on research grants over 10 years. Last month, this institute approved its first round of research grants, putting $45 million to 72 embryonic stem cell research projects throughout the state.

With this action, more money went to embryonic stem cell research in one day ñ and in one state ñ than the National Institutes of Health spent on this research last year in the entire country.

Other states are pressing ahead on embryonic stem cell research, including Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey and Maryland. But I believe we need to put the power of federal funding behind embryonic stem cell research.

Congress and the president have a second chance. I urge the President not to use his veto power, which would disappoint so many Americans, including Mr. Bischoff, who became a Parkinson's activist after being diagnosed last year.

"Of all the bills he could veto during his presidency, why this one?" he asked, referring to last year's action. "It doesn't make any sense to me."

It makes no sense to me, either.

A majority of the American people favor embryonic stem cell research. A majority in the House recently voted for it. I hope the Senate follows suit, and that the president has a change of heart. The hopes of millions of Americans depend on it.

- Sen. Dianne Feinstein represents California in the U.S. Senate. She is a Democrat.