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Special report

Back in the race

An almost unthinkable defeat for President Bush in Congress has put embryonic stem-cell research firmly back on the US agenda. But with South Korea setting a pace the United States will still struggle to match, the field's future is fraught. Nature reports on the key political battles surrounding this issue.

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Unmoved: George Bush has said he will veto fresh stem-cell legislation. Credit: C. DEVORAH/WENN/NEWSCOM

Advocates of stem-cell research in the United States have just secured a victory that few believed was possible. On 24 May, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would allow federal funding for research on newly derived human embryonic stem-cell lines. If signed into law, it would reverse the policy set by President George W. Bush on 9 August 2001 that prohibits federally funded research on embryonic cell lines derived after that date.

Sponsors of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act convinced 50 members of Bush's Republican party to vote against him, in favour of the bill. A few months ago that seemed unthinkable, but a combination of medical and economic arguments has helped to bring about a change of heart.

Many representatives say that they were swayed by constituents or relatives with diseases that could potentially be cured by stem-cell research. Others gave credence to arguments that, by not funding the research, the United States is losing ground to other countries, such as South Korea. Just days before the vote, Woo Suk Hwang at Seoul National University announced a major breakthrough in stem-cell research — the use of cloned embryos to produce stem cells that genetically matched patients' tissues (see Nature 435, 393; 2005 ).

Some representatives also expressed concerns that states such as California and New Jersey, which are contributing their own money to fund stem-cell research, may gain prestige and economic advantage at the expense of other states. Indeed, the vote is expected to bolster California's stem-cell initiative, which has become bogged down lately in political battles of its own (see ‘California stem-cell institute fights legal challenges’).


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In focus: Stem Cells

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NIH stem-cell information

Text and status of California state bill

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Check, E. Back in the race. Nature 435, 544–545 (2005).

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