Stem Cells: An End to Debate or 'Déjà Vu'?

The never-ending argument over embryonic stem cells has taken a turn that seems unprecedented: both sides look happy. On the pro-embryonic-research side, a bill loosening restrictions on federal funding passed the House easily on Thursday (after breezing through the Senate in April). Conservatives have reason to rejoice, too. Scientists revealed on Wednesday a new technique for bestowing all the flexibility of embryonic stem cells on mature skin cells in mice—an approach that could revolutionize medicine without the destruction of embryos. News accounts hailed the report as a potential end to controversy. But David Prentice of the Family Research Council says the events just seemed like "déjà vu all over again" to him. And if that's true, neither side will be smiling for long.

Here's why: the last time Congress passed a bill expanding funds for embryonic research, in 2006, President George W. Bush nixed it, and the House couldn't get around his veto. Bush said that he'd veto the new bill, too, and the House is again short of enough votes to override him. "This was an exercise in political theater," says Prentice, and at least until there's a new administration, "nothing's going to be enacted into law."

Meanwhile, scientists were ecstatic about the quasi-embryonic cells they'd created—but this wasn't the first time they'd offered an alternative. In January, researchers announced that some stem cells found in the placenta and amniotic fluid may be as flexible as embryonic cells. In April, on the eve of the Senate vote, another team said it had reversed type 1 diabetes using stem cells taken from adult patients. The new discovery is more significant; observers compared it to Dolly the sheep in terms of its seismic impact. But it doesn't mean embryonic stem cells won't be needed anymore. If anything, said MIT biologist Marius Wernig, it's a call for scientists "to study human embryonic stem cells much more carefully" so they'll understand what they're trying to mimic with their new, "reprogrammed" adult cells. An end to controversy? Sounds more like it's back to the beginning.