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Senators call to ease stem cell restrictions

A majority of the US Senate has signed a letter asking President Bush to lift the government's funding restrictions on embryonic stem cells, increasing the pressure to change a policy critics say is holding back potentially lifesaving medical research.

The letter, which is still being circulated for signatures and has not yet been released, says the United States is falling behind in research into diseases "that affect more than 100 million Americans" and calls on the president to "expand" the current policy. It has been signed by 56 senators, including conservatives Trent Lott of Mississippi, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, and 10 other Republicans.

Human embryonic stem cells are potent cells that can create any type of tissue in the human body and are thought to have great promise for fighting diseases that afflict millions of Americans. Because they can be created only by destroying a human embryo, the use of the cells for research is highly controversial, and three years ago President Bush declared the government would no longer pay for any research on new lines of stem cells.

The Senate letter, which mirrors one released by the House of Representatives two months ago, is a sign of how the political terrain has changed since Bush issued his policy in August 2001.

Since then, groups representing victims of diseases that might be helped by the research -- such as Parkinson's or juvenile diabetes -- have been aggressively lobbying Congress. This campaign has included pleading visits from children who have diabetes, as well as a powerful speech from former first lady Nancy Reagan. Though many legislators remain firmly opposed to embryonic stem cell research, the campaign has taken some of the partisan edge off the debate and given the president a measure of political cover should he decide to alter the policy.

"I have seen a change [in political attitudes] over the last few months," said Lawrence A. Soler, who heads up the Washington lobbying operations of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. "This is not a partisan issue."

The Senate effort is fueled by a sense among scientists that the ban is posing more of an obstacle to research in the United States than at first thought. In 2001, the president said the government would pay for research on lines of stem cells that already existed, a number he put at more than 60. Only 19 of those lines have become available to scientists, however. Last month a Globe survey found that most new cell lines are being created overseas, and that federally funded American scientists aren't able to keep up with the field as it moves forward.

The writing of the letter, organized by Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, and Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, followed the House's similar effort, which gathered 36 Republican signatures and 206 total, just shy of a majority.

Backers of the Senate letter want more signatures because they are still short of the 60 senators whose approval would be needed to force a vote on a controversial topic.

The letter raises the prospect that the ban could be lifted with new legislation, but even critics of Bush's policy consider that unlikely. It would be hard to find the two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress needed to overturn a presidential veto, Soler conceded. Instead, the senators offer to work with Bush to forge a new policy.

After the House released its letter in April, the director of the National Institutes of Health reiterated the president's policy, but conceded that it might be holding up scientific progress. Two weeks ago, a pair of White House aides met with the two who organized that letter, Representatives Michael N. Castle, Republican of Delaware, and Diana DeGette, Democrat of Colorado.

Yesterday, a White House spokesman said that the letter did not alter the president's views.

"The president remains committed to exploring the promise of stem cell research, but continues to believe strongly that we should not cross a fundamental moral line of funding or encouraging the destruction of human embryos," Ken Lisaius said.

To start a new line, scientists take cells from a human embryo about five days after fertilization. Couples undergoing in vitro fertilization typically have more of these embryos than they can use, and the extras are usually frozen and then eventually discarded if the couple no longer wants them.

The fight over embryonic stem cell research has its political roots in the standoff over abortion, but it is slowly changing into a debate over the future of US medical research, said Robert Blendon, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. As the debate changes, he said, the public and politicians are likely to be more supportive of the research.

Neither of New Hampshire's senators has signed the letter, though all the other New England senators have.

Gareth Cook can be reached at cook@globe.com.

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