Nearly three quarters of US adults in a recent poll agreed that medical researchers should be allowed to use embryonic stem cells left over from in vitro fertilization procedures to prevent or develop treatments for diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.

The precise figure was 72%,  just below the 74% in favour recorded when a similar survey was conducted in 2005, noted the joint poll team of Harris Interactive and Scout News division HealthDay. Corresponding figures for 2004 and 2001 were 74% and 61% respectively.

The survey was conducted online in the US between 28 and 30 September 2010, taking in 2,113 adults aged 18 years and over. As would be expected, the political complexion of the respondents was a marked determinant, with 58% of Republicans, 82% of Democrats and 73% of independents agreeing that research with embryonic stem cells should be permitted under the circumstances described.

Religious conviction was also a significant factor. Among Catholics, support was surprisingly high at 69%, while positive scores for Protestants, born-again Christians/other religion and Christians were 74%, 66% and 58% respectively.

As Harris Interactive and HealthDay point out, the poll was conducted at a “crucial juncture” in the legal arguments over federal funding for embryonic stem cell research in the US. 

In March 2009 Barack President Obama made good on his promise to scrap the executive order passed by former President George W Bush in August 2001, which severely limited federal support for embryonic stem cell research by banning funds for projects that used anything other than the 22 or so embryonic stem cell lines then available for study.

However, the research environment for therapies based on human embryonic stem cells has since been thrown into doubt again by a District Court ruling that federal funding in the field violated a 1996 law – the so-called Dickey-Wicker Amendment – prohibiting the use of public money for research involving the destruction of human embryos.

The US Justice Department has since filed a motion to have the preliminary injunction imposed by Judge Royce Lamberth suspended. In late September, an appeals court in Washington put the injunction on hold so that full arguments could be heard in the case.