Scientists Await Action on Stem Cells

By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 2009

At the National Institutes of Health, officials have started drafting guidelines they will need to start funding human embryonic stem cell research that has been off-limits for nearly eight years.

At the University of California at San Francisco, scientists are poised to dismantle the cumbersome bureaucracy they created to segregate experiments that were acceptable under the federal restrictions from studies that were not.

At the Harvard Stem Cell Institute in Cambridge, Mass., graduate students and other scientists paid with federal grants are eagerly awaiting the day when they can contribute their eureka moments to projects that are forbidden under the current policy.

But in the month since Inauguration Day, the moment they have been awaiting has not come, prompting some to ask: When will President Obama deliver on his campaign promise to lift one of the most contentious policies imposed by his predecessor?

"Everyone is waiting with bated breath," said George Daley, a leading stem cell scientist at Children's Hospital in Boston. "We're all waiting to breathe a huge sigh of relief."

President George W. Bush imposed the restriction in 2001, limiting federal funding to studies of cell lines that were already in existence on that date to prevent tax dollars from encouraging the destruction of more embryos.

The limitation, welcomed by those who believe that destroying human embryos is immoral, has been denounced by many scientists for severely hindering research on hundreds of new cell lines developed since then. Such cells could lead to cures for a host of ailments because they can become any type of tissue in the body, they say.

Proponents expected Obama to lift the restriction in his first week in office, when he issued a flurry of executive orders to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, make government less secretive and lift a ban on funding international family planning groups that support abortion, among other things.

"We were surprised and disappointed it wasn't in there," said Amy Comstock Rick of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, which has been leading the lobbying effort to lift the restriction. "We're wondering why it's taking so long."

Advocates on both sides still expect Obama to act. Obama repeated his promise in a private meeting with House Democrats last week, and top adviser David Axelrod said on "Fox News Sunday" that the president is "considering" an executive order and will act soon.

But the delay and the vague language are making proponents nervous. Has Obama simply been too preoccupied with the economic crisis to focus on the issue? Is he hesitant to wade into one of the flashpoints of the culture wars? Could he even be considering a moderate move as part of his broad strategy of seeking the middle ground on even the most contentious issues?

"The word the president is 'considering' it is too vague a word for me," Rick said. "I don't know entirely what that means. If it means he's just working out the details, that's great. But if 'considering' means 'reconsidering' we would be very upset."

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