President reverses federal ban on stem cell funding

Researchers will now have access to embryonic cells for studying diseases including diabetes, heart ailments and Parkinson’s

On the morning of March 9, President Barack Obama signed an executive order lifting a ban enacted by the Bush administration on federal funding for research that uses embryonic stem cells. Indeed, “We will vigorously support scientists who pursue this research,” the president said at the White House signing ceremony. “And we will aim for America to lead the world in the discoveries it may yield.”

The cells at issue come from embryos that are less than a week old (SN: 9/13/08, p. 16). These undifferentiated cells can morph into any type the body (or research) may need (SN: 9/13/08, p. 17).

By using embryonic stem cells with the same genetic profile as those that underlie certain chronic disorders — from juvenile diabetes to heart ailments and Parkinson’s disease — researchers hope to probe how and why certain specialized cells and tissues undergo changes that foster disease. Embryonic stem cells could be used to test the efficacy of new drugs — long before those drugs can be tested on patients. The cells can also point to how primitive cells differentiate into specialized cells and organs, and might even be seeded into tissues to help repair damage caused by injury or disease.

In the March 9 announcement, the president complained about the Bush administration’s attitude toward such disease-in-a-dish, stem cell studies: “Rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values.” But the two “are not inconsistent,” Obama contended.

Acknowledging that many “thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research,” the president said the proper course of action has become clear to him: Science should be allowed to work with embryonic stem cells. “I cannot guarantee that we will find the treatments and cures we seek,” he said. “But I can promise that we will seek them — actively, responsibly and with the urgency required to make up for lost ground.”

Finally, the president promised that the administration “will never undertake this research lightly. We will support it only when it is both scientifically worthy and responsibly conducted.” Toward that end, he said, “We will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse.”

R. Dale McClure, president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, based in Birmingham, Ala., says, “Embryonic stem cell research will now be judged and funded based on scientific, not political, criteria.”

“We have never asked for special treatment for stem cell research,” he reported in a prepared statement, “and will not ask for special treatment or funding now. All we have ever asked is that all tissue types be allowed to enter into the scientific competition which has made America’s research system the envy of the world.”

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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