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Scientists Await Action on Stem Cells
In response to a query, White House spokesman Reid H. Cherlin wrote in an e-mail: "The president has made it clear that increasing stem cell research is a priority for his administration, and he'll be acting soon to reverse restrictions on this critical science."
Not everyone, of course, is disappointed by the delay.
"We continue to oppose federal funding of research that destroys human embryos," said David Christensen of the Family Research Council. "We don't think the federal government should fund or create an incentive to destroy human life."
Some opponents have suggested that Obama might qualify his executive order to try to take the sting out of the move. Proponents, however, hope Obama will simply lift the restriction without caveats and let the NIH work out the details. In anticipation, the NIH has started drafting guidelines that would address the many ethical issues raised by the research, using as models templates compiled by the National Academy of Sciences and the International Society for Stem Cell Research.
"We want to be able to move as quickly as possible," said Story Landis, who heads NIH's stem cell task force. "The science is waiting."
Among the issues the guidelines will address is whether funding should be limited to cells from leftover embryos that are destined for destruction at infertility clinics.
"We are assuming that what we will be asked to do is develop guidelines for stem cell lines derived from embryos produced for reproductive purposes in excess of need," Landis said.
Proponents of the research hope the executive order and resulting NIH guidelines would be more open-ended than that, allowing research on stem cells derived in other ways. But that would make the move even more controversial.
Although the guidelines will need to be approved by the Health and Human Services Department and undergo 30 days of public comment before becoming final, Landis said she expects that the NIH could approve the first supplemental grants to current grantees to study new cell lines within four months and the first new grants within six to nine months.
"If I were a smart scientist, I would be writing a grant right now," said Landis, noting that some of the $10 billion the NIH will receive as part of the stimulus package could be used to expand stem cell research.
The 21 cell lines that scientists are permitted to study under the Bush policy have a variety of shortcomings, critics say. Many, for example, may have defects that could make them dangerous to transplant into people. But perhaps more important, hundreds of newer lines have been developed that offer a host of opportunities. Many lines, for example, carry defects for specific diseases, which could provide crucial insights into Parkinson's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease, diabetes and other devastating ailments.
"People with these diseases are running out of time every day," said Lawrence A. Soler of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. "That's why we need this to move forward as soon as possible."
Opponents have argued that research on human embryonic stem cells has become unnecessary because of scientific advances in the interim, including promising studies involving adult stem cells and the ability to turn adult cells into cells that appear to have many of the properties of embryonic cells.
"We think the science has bypassed the debate," Christensen said. "We think the administration would be better served to advance that kind of stem cell research."
But many scientists say it remains far from clear which cells will ultimately lead to the most important advances, making it crucial to continue to study those cells along with embryonic cells.
Whatever Obama does, Congress is also likely to get involved by considering legislation designed to prevent any future presidents from reinstating restrictions.
"We need to codify the opening up of the research so it doesn't turn into a Ping-Pong ball of administrations," said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), who noted that the legislation could address another potential roadblock: the perennial Dickey-Wicker amendment that prohibits federal funding of research involving human embryos. She has been consulting with the White House on both issues.