Monday, March 09, 2009

Obama to Lift Stem Cell Restrictions

President Obama is expected today to end an 8½-year ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

President Obama is expected to sign an executive order today reversing Bush era stem cell restrictions.White House officials said Sunday that the president's order will give the National Institutes of Health 120 days to develop ethical guidelines for the research.

"Encompassed in [the executive order] will also be the requirements around guidelines that will be drafted by the NIH [National Institutes of Health] as they ... work with others around the country to make sure we're handling the issue responsibly," said Melody Barnes, the director of the president's Domestic Policy Council.

The president will also sign a memorandum that Barnes says will "restore scientific integrity in government decision making." It will help ensure public policy is "guided by sound scientific advice," she said.

The memorandum will cover all scientific research, including such areas as energy and climate change. The Bush administration was often accused of allowing politics to color its scientific decisions, something the administration denied.

Actor Michael J. Fox, a longtime advocate for embryonic stem cell research, expressed his enthusiasm for the president's plan and commended Obama for "recognizing the inherent value of research freedom and creating an environment in which it can flourish."

"Today is a new day. I'm thrilled to see President Obama has honored his commitment to get politics out of science," Fox, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, told "Good Morning America." "The last few years have been incredibly frustrating for patients and researchers who believe that embryonic stem cell research has the potential to bring better treatment."

One of those who will be on hand for the signing at the White House is 34-year-old Roman Reed, who was paralyzed from the waist down at age 19, while playing college football.

The Fremont, Calif., resident and his parents have become tireless advocates for embryonic stem cell research. They were instrumental in getting California to fund this research, when the federal government would not.

Reed told ABC News he is convinced embryonic stem cell research holds limitless promise.
"I know one day I will get out of this chair and pick up my son and hold him right," Reed said. "I promised my family that I would walk again, and I will make that dream come true."
Reed's father and mother have accompanied him to Washington.

"The last eight years have been frustrating," said Don Reed, Reed's father. "It's hard to have the president of the United States be an obstacle. We want the president on our side."
The significance of the move has been hailed by disease advocacy organizations as a positive step toward new treatments for a variety of conditions.

"We are delighted to hear that President Obama will be signing a stem cell executive order on Monday, restoring a level of scientific freedom to this country that we believe is critical to the future," said Katie Hood, CEO of The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research in a statement issued Friday. "Our foundation is optimistic about the work that will now continue toward better treatments and cures for the millions of people impacted by injury or disease."

The announcement resounded through the research community as well. Sean Morrison, the director of the University of Michigan Center for Stem Cell Biology in Ann Arbor, said he was "overjoyed" at the news.

"President Obama's executive order signals a new day in which science policy will be based on science and in which the federal government can invest in the best ideas with the greatest potential to improve public health," Morrison said. "America will once again seek to be the world's engine for biomedical discovery, leading the way toward new treatments for disease."
But the executive order that ends President Bush's 2001 ban on such research will likely bring no such end to the fierce political debate that surrounds the use of embryonic stem cells.
On Friday, ABC News' Karen Travers reported that Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del. -- co-author of the stem cell legislation that President Bush vetoed twice -- welcomed the White House decision.
"I could not be more excited to hear that President Obama will finally lift the stifling restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research -- something I have actively fought for over the last five years," Castle said in a statement. "This single action symbolizes a new day for scientific research and highlights the importance of a strong federal role in promoting potentially life-saving science."

Shortly afterward, ABC News' Jake Tapper reported outrage from another Republican in the form of a statement issued by House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.

(ABC News/AP)"Advancements in science and research have moved faster than the debates among politicians in Washington, D.C., and breakthroughs announced in recent years confirm that the full potential of stem cell research can be realized without the destruction of living human embryos," Boehner's statements read. "The question is whether taxpayer dollars should be used to subsidize the destruction of precious human life. Millions of Americans strongly oppose that, and rightfully so."

David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences for the Washington, D.C.-based Christian advocacy group Family Research Council, expressed similar disappointment.

"There are adult stem cells that are helping to improve patients' health and saving lives, and these new iPS cells that are providing basic research tools to study disease," Prentice said. "It's really a waste of resources to be moving in that direction now. It's a waste of funding, and it's a waste of lives, both in terms of the embryos and the patients waiting for these advances. ... I think it's clear that this is perhaps just fulfilling a campaign promise that was ill conceived."
Public Mostly Supportive of Embryonic Stem Cell ResearchWhat has traditionally made embryonic stem cells such a hot-button issue is the fact that, in order to obtain them, researchers must destroy human embryos -- a step that some say violates the sanctity of human life.
In August 2001, Bush signed an executive order barring federal funds for embryonic stem cell research on all but a couple dozen existing embryonic stem cell lines.

But proponents of the study of embryonic stem cells say much of this research uses discarded embryos from in-vitro fertilization procedures, which in all likelihood would have been destroyed anyway.

As the discussion over the potential promises of embryonic stem cells has evolved in the last decade, so too have public opinions of the research. Currently, most Americans appear to support the loosening of restrictions on embryonic stem cell research; according to the results of a January ABC/Post poll, 59 percent of Americans support loosening the restrictions, while 35 percent oppose doing so.

The relaxation of federal funding restrictions sits well with most Democrats, as well as with most independents. Republicans were more likely to oppose lifting such restrictions, with only 40 percent supporting such a move and 55 percent opposing it.

President Obama is expected to sign an executive order today reversing Bush era stem cell restrictions.Indeed, the president's order comes more than a month after the Jan. 23 approval by the Food and Drug Administration of the first study of a treatment based on human embryonic stem cells aimed at treating those with spinal cord injuries.

Researchers Overwhelmingly Positive"This decision is a major step forward for stem cell research in the United States," said Martin Pera, professor and founding director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at USC. "The move will enable NIH-funded researchers to work on valuable new embryonic stem cell lines ... to determine which cell lines are best suited to treat particular diseases."

"This is a huge step forward and typical of Barack Obama, who is an incredible breath of fresh air and exactly the president the U.S. and the world needed," said Helen Blau, director of the Baxter Laboratory in Genetic Pharmacology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. "Thank goodness this senseless ban has been lifted."

Still, Dr. Allen Spiegel, dean of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and vice chair of the National Institutes of Health Stem Cell Task Force, said the years of restriction on embryonic stem cell research has been a major setback for U.S. researchers.

"In hearings before Sen. [Arlen] Specter [R-Pa.] and [Tom] Harkin [D-Iowa], I stated that banning funding for research on human embryonic stem cells was like tying one hand behind the backs of stem cell investigators," Spiegel said. "Lifting the ban cannot eliminate the effect of years of delay, but harnessing the full power of NIH to review and fund scientifically meritorious research projects will accelerate progress toward the goal of helping people suffering from diabetes, neurologic diseases, and many other conditions."

Other researchers remained cautious in their enthusiasm.

"I'm super excited, but the devil's in the details," said stem cell researcher Dr. George Daley, associate professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Harvard Medical School in Boston. "I'm still worried that he might say that only some types of lines will be allowed."

"I hope he'll say the decision should be made by scientists and allow the NIH [National Institutes of Health] to decide based on the recommendations of experts and scientists outside of politics and religion," he said. "This is where the NIH [National Institutes of Health] has served us so well in other areas, and we've been missing that for the past eight years."
Reports from Sunlen Miller, Jake Tapper, Karen Travers, Gary Langer and the ABC News Medical Unit contributed to this report.
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