Government

Obama lifts limits on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research

But the president remains committed to policy opposing reproductive cloning.

By Doug Trapp — Posted March 16, 2009

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The end of a restriction on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research and an increased amount of funding for all types of medical research are reopening an avenue toward finding cures for major diseases, some medical experts say.

President Obama signed an executive order ending the ban on March 9, more than 7½ years after President Bush enacted the restriction, which exempted stem cell lines derived before August 2001. Obama's order instructs the director of the National Institutes of Health to issue final guidelines within 120 days -- by early July -- to govern the funding of stem cell research as allowed by law.

"Today's action by President Obama will help scientists realize the potential of stem cell research to benefit the many Americans living with diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's," said American Medical Association Board of Trustees Chair Joseph M. Heyman, MD.

Obama said federal funding is a key part of finding cures. "Medical miracles do not happen simply by accident. They result from painstaking and costly research, from years of lonely trial and error, much of which never bears fruit, and from a government willing to support that work." The $787 billion stimulus package enacted in February provides billions more to NIH through 2011 for research grants.

The change does not alter the Bush administration's policy on reproductive cloning. "We will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong and has no place in our society, or any society," Obama said.

The president also signed a memorandum instructing the White House director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy to write an additional regulation by early July with two goals: First, to ensure that executive branch hiring for scientific and technical positions is based on the candidates' scientific credentials; second, to direct federal agencies to make decisions based on well-established scientific and technical information while making available to the public the information that guided their decisions.

"Promoting science isn't just about providing resources -- it's also about protecting free and open inquiry," Obama said.

The move reflects criticism of the Bush administration's stances on global warming, family planning and stem cell research, among other issues. Some scientists felt that several of the former administration's decisions on these issues were not backed up by sound science, said Richard Marchase, PhD, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. "We want to see policy become more data-driven."

Others were disappointed by the announcement. "This is going to be wasted money. It's not going to give us any medical advances," said J.C. Willke, MD. He's the author of books on medical ethics and abortion and serves as the president of Life Issues Institute, an educational foundation in Cincinnati.

Dr. Willke said government-funded research should focus instead on adult stem cells. In the past year, scientists have been able to induce adult skin and nerve cells, for example, into pluripotency -- the state at which cells can form new cell types. Current research is focused on using these pluripotent cells to replace damaged cells in spinal cords. Meanwhile, embryonic stem cell research has progressed slowly, Dr. Willke said.

Rep. John Fleming, MD, (R, La.) said the adult stem cell advances mean sacrificing human embryos is no longer necessary. "Embryonic stem cell research provides no guarantee of scientific advancement, but it does guarantee the unborn have lost a critical battle."

But Marchase said examining human embryonic stem cells is still the best way to learn about the control mechanisms that lead to the formation of different types of cells -- and how that process goes awry when the body forms tumors. "You have to be able to understand these differentiation pathways."

Marchase said he's impressed that Obama has put distinguished scientists in key advisory positions in his administration. "I'm just very encouraged about an administration taking this attitude toward the importance of science in policy."

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