President Bush vetoed legislation to expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research yesterday, prompting officials at Maryland research institutions to issue warnings that restrictions on the science are slowing medical progress.
Some scientists in Maryland have patched together state grants and private donations to keep embryonic stem cell work going, but others have shied away for lack of federal support, officials said.
That has blunted Maryland's competitive edge in medical research, they said, and in the long run could prevent scientists from turning their theories into treatments for disease.
"I don't think that philanthropy or the state of Maryland is really going to be enough to fund the kind of clinical trials to help patients," said Dr. Chi V. Dang, vice dean of research at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "It's sufficient to do some of the groundwork, but once we start clinical trials we are going to need much more."
The Bush veto - his second of legislation that would overturn an executive order restricting stem cell funding - means that it's doubtful that there will be any expansion of federally backed stem cell research during his last 19 months in office.
Though some Republicans joined Democrats in passing the bill, supporters do not have the two-thirds majority needed in both the House and Senate to override the president's veto.
Along with many religious conservatives, Bush opposes research that would result in the destruction of embryos to harvest stem cells despite strong support for the work among researchers and the public.
"If this legislation became law, it would compel American taxpayers - for the first time in our history - to support the deliberate destruction of human embryos," Bush said during a White House news conference yesterday. "I made it clear to Congress and to the American people that I will not allow our nation to cross this moral line."
He issued an executive order requiring the National Institutes of Health to ensure federal funding for research on adult stem cell lines that, like embryonic stem cells, can mature into a number of cell types.
Democrats in Congress, including several from Maryland, criticized Bush for impeding medical progress and said they would keep the issue before the public through the 2008 presidential election.
"Democrats will continue to fight to lift the current restrictive policy on federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells so that we can look back on this administration's approach as nothing more than a regrettable, temporary anomaly," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland.
Critics said the president's executive order was disingenuous because it is now impossible to make adult stem cells that are as flexible as embryonic stem cells. They said embryonic stems cells hold the most promise for combating illnesses such as Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injuries and strokes.
Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Maryland Republican who sponsored legislation that would require federal funding of research into methods of obtaining stem cells without creating or destroying human embryos, welcomed the Bush veto.
"Science and medical research should serve life, not sacrifice life," Bartlett said before going to the White House to stand at Bush's side.
Since Bush restricted stem cell research in 2001, Maryland has joined several states in filling the void with state funds.
Last month, the Maryland Stem Cell Research Commission allotted $14.5 million to 24 stem cell projects, at least 10 of which involved embryonic cells.
Before the state fund was created in 2006, researchers who wanted to use stem cells derived from embryos were mostly dependant on private grants or were restricted to a few stem cell lines that qualified for federal money.
Gov. Martin O'Malley increased stem cell funding from $15 million under the Ehrlich administration to $23 million in the budget for fiscal year 2008, which begins July 1.
Though officials said Bush's veto increases the need for state money, Maryland's pending shortfall makes it unclear whether that is possible.
"The governor is committed to continuing to fund stem cell research but I can't speak to the exact dollar amounts, given the $1.5 billion structural deficit that this administration inherited," said Rick Abbruzzese, O'Malley's press secretary. The Bush veto "is disappointing, and what it means is that states like Maryland will have to continue to lead on this issue, without any support from the federal government."
Baltimore Democrat Samuel I. Rosenberg, one of the House of Delegates' leading supporters of stem cell research, said he still hopes for more money in fiscal 2009.
"There is no issue that affects more lives and gives people more hope than this, and you can see it in people's faces and their body language when you go out and talk about this issue," he said.
Hopkins' Institute of Cellular Engineering, where most of the school's stem cell research takes place, has spent roughly $20 million on stem cell research since it was created in 2001 - including $8 million for embryonic stem cell work, Dang said.
Last month, the Maryland Stem Cell Research Commission awarded Hopkins scientists funding for 15 projects.
At the University of Maryland School of Medicine, most research to date has focused on adult stem cells.
"We had pretty much opted out of embryonic stem cell research, because NIH isn't funding it," said Dr. Bruce Jarrell, vice dean for research and academic affairs at Maryland.
The promise of state funding prompted several scientists at the school to consider projects involving embryonic stem cells.
"When the state put forth its offer to support stem cell research, we made a concerted effort here to get people to talk about things and put forward proposals," Jarrell said.
Dr. Ricardo Feldman, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Maryland, will receive $200,000 over the next two years from the state fund. He plans to use the money to study Gaucher's disease, an incurable blood disorder that runs in some Jewish families.
The disease causes fatty material to build up in the tissues and can lead to broken bones, liver and lung problems, and brain damage in infants.
"It can be treated, but it requires a blood infusion every two weeks, which is extremely expensive," Feldman said.
He hopes to coax embryonic stem cells to differentiate into flawed blood cells like those found in people with Gaucher's. Those cells, he says, can then be used to study the disease and develop better treatments or a cure.
He plans to use embryonic stem cells from the few lines that are eligible for federal funding, but hopes to expand to other embryonic lines if his work pans out.
"If it were well-funded, we would go for new cell lines," he said. "We don't know where the breakthrough is going to come from, so limiting it to the few cell lines that are approved is very stifling."
Though officials at Hopkins and the University of Maryland are grateful for the state money, they say restrictions on federal money hinder science.
Jarrell said some state universities, which traditionally rely on NIH funding, have fallen behind private institutions and foreign universities.
"I think we are still behind the 8-ball on embryonic stem cell research," he said.
Even if the funding restrictions are lifted after Bush leaves office, he added, Maryland and other public universities might have trouble competing for federal money because they will have so few scientists with embryonic stem cell experience.
Even at Hopkins, one of the nation's leaders in embryonic stem cell research, federal restrictions are hampering progress, medical school officials said.
"It is literally illegal to use federal funding for research on embryos," said Dang. "If you have a lab that is funded by multiple sources, it becomes a complete administrative nightmare."
He said the school is trying to lay the groundwork for future research and to remain flexible in case more federal money becomes available.
"Some projects we can do with private donations and state money, but others may have to wait until further in the future," he said. "It takes billions of dollars to make drugs. I don't see how stem cell research is going to cost any less."
Sun reporters Jonathan Rockoff, Gadi A. Epstein and Matthew Hay Brown, and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this article.