Washington has effectively put a lid on federal efforts to advance embryonic stem-cell research. But pressure from scientists eager to expand their knowledge, special interest groups searching for new cures for diseases, and those who see a lucrative new biomedical industry has found a relief valve: the nation's 50 statehouses.
Stem-cell initiatives flowing from legislatures and governors' offices continue to gather steam, including some that permit controversial human cloning to generate embryonic stem cells. In response, opponents of such research, who find it ethically unacceptable, have also stepped up their activity in states - with some success.
There has been an "explosion" of state activity since 2000-01, says Alissa Johnson, who tracks genetics issues for the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). An August 2001 Bush administration mandate to restrict embryonic stem-cell research to a few existing stem-cell lines has "created a state-by-state [stem-cell] movement unprecedented in medical research," wrote Paul Sanberg, director of the Center for Aging and Brain Repair at the University of South Florida, Tampa, in October's issue of The Scientist.
In 2005, states considered at least 180 bills or resolutions on stem-cell research, according to the NCSL. A dozen states carried over legislation into this year, and other states will have new bills introduced.
Missouri is being watched closely. Advocates there are gathering signatures to put a measure on the November ballot that would ensure that stem-cell research remained legal, including therapeutic cloning, which destroys very early human embryos, called blastocysts, in the process. The medical and business communities generally back the initiative, while groups such as the Missouri Catholic Conference and Missouri Right to Life oppose it. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly described the Missouri ballot initiative.]