Obama Will Lift Restrictions on Funding for Embryonic Stem Cell Research

By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 7, 2009

President Obama's decision to lift restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research, scheduled to be announced Monday, is expected to provide a major boost to one of the most promising but controversial fields of biomedical research in generations.

The signing of an executive order voiding the restrictions will allow thousands of scientists to study hundreds of lines of cells that have been developed since the limitations were put in place eight years ago. It will also allow them to dismantle cumbersome bureaucracies constructed to work around the constraints and let them exchange scientific ideas more easily.

Because stem cells obtained from very early embryos are believed to be capable of morphing into any tissue in the body, scientists think that they will yield fundamental insights into the underlying causes of many diseases and that they could be used to repair damage caused by diabetes, Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injuries and other conditions.

But extracting the cells destroys the days-old embryos. In an effort to prevent tax dollars from encouraging the destruction of more embryos, President George W. Bush imposed the restrictions on Aug. 9, 2001, limiting federal funding to studies of what turned out to be 21 stem cell lines that were already in existence.

Critics have long complained that the cells that scientists have been permitted to study under the Bush policy have shortcomings. 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. For instance, many lines carry defects for specific diseases and could yield crucial insights into how those illnesses develop and might be cured.

"This is huge," said Amy Comstock Rick of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, which lobbied to lift the restrictions. "It is eight years overdue to have human embryonic stem cell research put back in place with other forms of research for patients in this country."

Opponents, however, have argued that research on human embryonic stem cells has become unnecessary because of scientific advances, including promising studies involving adult stem cells and the ability to transform them so that they appear to have many of the properties of embryonic cells.

"Today's news that President Obama will open the door to direct taxpayer funds for embryonic stem cell research that encourages the destruction of human embryos is a slap in the face to Americans who believe in the dignity of all human life," said Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. "It is unethical to use human life, even young embryonic life, to advance science.

"We should be increasing funding for adult stem cell treatments, which have been used to treat patients for over 70 diseases and conditions, and we should fund the historic achievements in reprogramming ordinary skin cells into embryonic-like stem cells without compromising ethics by destroying life."

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 embryonic cells along with other types.

Some opponents have suggested that, as part of his effort to find common ground on divisive issues, Obama might qualify his executive order to try to take the sting out. But those briefed on the content of the order yesterday said it would lift the restrictions without caveats and let the National Institutes of Health (NIH) work out the details.

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