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Obama ends embryonic stem cell research ban

President Obama today lifted an eight-year-old ban on embryonic stem cell research, signing an executive order that he called "an important step in advancing the cause of science in America."

"We will vigorously support scientists who pursue this research," Obama said at a signing ceremony in the White House. "And we will aim for America to lead the world in the discoveries it one day may yield."

Obama's order ends former President George W. Bush's limit on federally funded embryonic stem-cell research to cell lines created before Aug. 9, 2001. Congress tried twice to reverse that ban, and his National Institutes of Health (NIH) director, Elias Zerhouni, urged an end to the restrictions, but Bush vetoed the legislation both times.

Proponents of the research believe the cells could one day be used to treat debilitating diseases including diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's and to reverse spinal-cord injuries. (The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) green-lighted the first trial of embryonic stem cells for spinal cord injuries days after Obama took office.) Opponents of such research say it's morally wrong to study cells derived from embryos that are destroyed in the process.

"In recent years, when it comes to stem cell research, rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values," Obama said during the signing ceremony.  "In this case, I believe the two are not inconsistent. As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research – and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly."

Ihor Lemischka, director of the Black Family Stem Cell Institute at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, said  today's action is "extremely significant. It opens up the prospect of funding for a much broader swath of research."

Bush's ban limited federally funded research to embryonic stem-cell lines that scientists said had been compromised or contaminated. As states and private foundations moved ahead with the research using other sources of funding, thousands of cell lines were developed that reflect the country's genetic diversity and may reveal previously unknown insights into human cell development, Lemischka said. "When you have that large number of lines available, it makes no sense to limit research to those few lines available before 2001," Lemischka told ScientificAmerican.com.

"In the short term, a lot of people that were previously not planning to submit grant proposals [to NIH for federal funds] will probably be doing so," he said, adding that the new research opportunities complement the $7.4 billion in the stimulus package for NIH grants. "Clearly, having science policy be dictated in large part by the best scientific evidence and rationale is a very healthy thing. It's fair to say the barriers are largely removed into developing insights into how diseases occur using embryonic stem cell research and that [could lead] to better diagnostics, better pharmaceutical drugs and how humans develop."

Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) secretary-designee Kathleen Sebelius, working with NIH acting director Lawrence Tabak, will have four months to set ethical and reporting guidelines governing the research.  In addition, Congress could draft legislation to codify Obama's order, making it tough for a future president to reverse.

In an afternoon teleconference, Tabak said that some of the $787 billion stimulus package could be applied to grant awards and that NIH would review where the stem cells would come from. The legislation Bush vetoed would have allowed unused embryos from IVF clinics to be used for research with donors' permission. "The executive order takes no position on specific scientific matters, so NIH will undertake a very careful and deliberative look," Tabak said. "The end goal is to ensure responsible and scientifically worthy stem cell research."

Story Landis, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said during the press briefing that it was too early to speculate when the first grants would be awarded, though she said the agency may start considering applications before the guidelines are finalized.
 
"We're very appreciative of the president's decision today," Tabak said. "The most immediate benefit is it signals to the scientific community that this field is now going to be expanded. For young scientists, it sends a very powerful message that this is an area of research that has enormous potential and is one they may want to be involved in in a very real way."

Obama today also ordered the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to "restor[e] scientific integrity to government decision making." He wasn’t specific about how that might happen, but said science advisers should be appointed based on their credentials, "not their politics or ideology," and that officials should "be open and honest with the American people about the science behind our decisions." The Bush administration was criticized for politicizing science on issues such as approval of over-the-counter emergency contraception and regulation of industrial emissions that scientists say cause global warming.

Updated at 5:20 p.m. with comments from Lawrence Tabak.

Fluorescent microscopic image of neurons generated from human embryonic stem cells/Xianmin Zeng, Buck Institute for Age Research courtesy of California Institute for Regenerative Medicine

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