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Obama to lift restrictions on embryonic stem cell research

President Obama is reportedly set to sign an executive order Monday lifting the Bush administration ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. The move is being heralded by scientists, who charge the limit has hobbled research efforts that hold the promise of new treatments and even cures for spinal injuries and debilitating disease such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and cancer.

CNN reports that the White House is planning an 11 a.m. ceremony to repeal President George W. Bush's executive order limiting federal funding to research on 21 cell lines extracted from embryos prior to Aug. 9, 2001. Researchers say that most – if not all – of those lines have been compromised or contaminated and are no longer suitable for research. 

Scientists have protested the ban since it took effect; even Bush's own director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Elias Zerhouni, split with the former president on the issue, charging that the ban hampered efforts to find new medical breakthroughs.

"It is very clear from my point of view that the current cell lines will not be sufficient to do the research we want to do," the former NIH chief testified during a 2007 Senate hearing. "It is clear today that American science will be better served and the nation would be better served if we let our scientists have access to more cell lines."

Opponents of embryonic stem cell research claim that it's immoral and unethical to spend taxpayer dollars for research that involves destroying embryos. Critics also argue that adult stem cells negate the need for embryonic stem cell research. But scientists believe that embryonic stem cells offer the most hope for treating a host of ills and injuries, because, unlike adult stem cells, they can morph into almost any type of tissue.

"They do not hold scientific water," Zerhouni testified about claims that adult stem cells are sufficient. "It is in the best interest of our scientists, our science, our country that we find ways—that the nation finds a way—to allow the science to go full speed on both adult and embryonic stem cell research."

Bush vetoed legislation that would have lifted the lid and freed federal funds for expanded research on stem cells extracted from frozen embryos set to be discarded by in vitro fertility clinics with the consent of donors. The measures established ethical and reporting guidelines governing the research, which the NIH has been drafting in anticipation of the limit lift, according to the Washington Post. In addition to Obama's expected move, look for the Democratic-controlled Congress to pass legislation designed to block future presidents from imposing such a restriction again.

President Obama speaking at a White House conference on health care reform, March 5, 2009 (via whitehouse.gov)

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