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.
"This is what the patient community, the scientific community and the medical community has been asking for," said Lawrence A. Soler of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. "We need to give credit to the administration for living up to their promise to keep politics out of science."
In anticipation of the decision, the NIH has started drafting guidelines to address the many ethical issues raised by the research.
In contrast to the low-key way in which Obama has reversed other Bush legacies related to culture-war issues, the White House has invited scientists, advocates and members of Congress to a public ceremony for the signing. Obama will also announce "a broader effort to restore scientific integrity," an administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
Federal law will still prohibit using federal funds to destroy human embryos. But some scientists hope funding will be allowed to support work on stem cells derived from a variety of sources, including from embryos specifically created to yield them, and not limited to cells from frozen embryos destined to be discarded by fertility clinics.
"We're all waiting to see what the details of the policy will be," said George Daley, a leading stem cell researcher at Children's Hospital Boston. "If the policy were limited to lines exclusively from frozen embryos left over at IVF clinics, that would be a very restricted course and exclude some very important lines."
Others agreed but said they would still be satisfied with such limitations.
"I don't personally have any problem creating embryos for embryonic stem cell research," said Mark A. Kay, a researcher at Stanford University. "But if he decides that embryos that have already been created and are going to be discarded are the ones that would be used, that would be reasonable as well. These things exist and are going to be discarded. It's really mind-boggling to me these things are going to be discarded and scientists haven't been allowed to use them to do research."
Because of the restrictions, U.S. scientists have relied on private or state funding for much of their stem cell research. Some set up parallel research facilities to separate federally funded work permissible under the restrictions from studies funded in other ways. Scientists receiving federal funding feared collaborating with those working with private money on forbidden cell lines.
Stem cell scientists had been concerned that the delay in Obama's long-promised lifting of the restrictions would cause them to miss their chance to apply for some of the new funding the NIH is receiving as part of the stimulus package.
While the first study testing embryonic stem cells on people could start as early as this summer, scientists cautioned that any cures from the research probably remain years away.
Staff writer Michael Shear contributed to this report.