The U.S. House of Representatives voted today to lift limits on embryonic stem cell research, which could speed cures for diseases. The House approved the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act by a 238-194 vote, short of the two-thirds majority (290 votes) that would be needed to override a veto by President Bush — who has said he would veto the bill.

Admittedly, the threat comes from someone who has never vetoed a single bill as president. Bush said the legislation would violate his earlier policy in which he allowed federal funding for stem cell research but limited it to 78 stem cell lines that existed as of Aug. 9, 2001. However, only about 20 of those lines proved suitable for basic research and even these cannot be used in people because they were contaminated with mouse feeder cells.

Supporters of the measure said many of the embryos that would be studied would be discarded otherwise rather than implanted anyway. They hope that federal funds could go to research that could lead to cures for diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

As we posted earlier, this comes after opponents introduced a parallel Stem Cell Therapeutic and Research Act bill (H.R. 2520), introduced by Reps. Chris Smith, R-N.J., and Artur Davis, D-Ala., it would provide $79 million to increase stem cell research using umbilical cord blood and establish a national database for patients looking for matches. It also would clear the way for studies on stem cells derived from adults.

Many members were voting for both measures, saying that together they represented hope for the largest number of people critically ill with diseases that scientists say could be treated or even cured through stem cell research.

But, the two bills address very different procedures. Blood saved from newborns’ umbilical cords is rich in a type of stem cells that produce blood cells and could be used to help treat leukemia and other diseases, even as most are routinely discarded. The Castle-DeGette bill deals with embryonic stem cells, which are the building blocks for every tissue in the body.

However, umbilical and embryonic stem cells are not interchangeable as cord stem cells have only been made to give rise to blood cells, not other tissue types as is the case with embryonic stem cells.

The bill now goes to the Senate where backers of embryonic stem cell research say it is supported by 60 senators, enough to break a filibuster by opponents, and could even get a two-thirds majority to that would be enough to beat a presidential veto.

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