Obama to lift restrictions on stem-cell research funding

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 6, 2009 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama plans on Monday to lift President George W. Bush's restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research, a step long awaited by scientists and people who say it could speed treatments for Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes and other diseases.

At the same time, the nation's economic crisis likely will prevent the sort of increases in federal money to match the expanded demand.

The White House declined on Friday to describe in detail the order that Obama is expected to sign in a public ceremony surrounded by a bipartisan group. Obama pledged during his presidential campaign to reverse Bush's limits.

An administration official familiar with the president's plans confirmed that Obama would overturn the restrictions implemented by Bush in 2001. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to make public statements ahead of the event.

Advocates were thrilled and expected it to mean that the National Institutes of Health could consider funding for hundreds of additional stem cell lines.

Don Gibbons, the chief communications officer for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine in San Francisco, said his BlackBerry had been buzzing nearly nonstop since word of the executive order leaked out.

Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a Republican who opposes abortion but has championed stem-cell research, praised Obama.

"This research enhances, not diminishes, human life, and the president deserves credit for making that possible," Hatch said in a statement released on Friday. "I strongly believe that being pro-life means helping the living by allowing critically important and ethical medical research to go forward."

Many anti-abortion advocates oppose the destruction of embryos, even though federal law only allows stem cell lines to be developed from the destruction of frozen embryos that fertility clinics have slated for disposal.

Such critics advocate more research with adult- or umbilical cord stem-cell lines, but researchers have found their use to be more limited. Scientists are looking to embryonic stem cells to study how diseases progress and develop therapies to repair the damage they cause.

Bush's restrictions limited federal funding to research on stem cells that were derived from human embryos before Aug. 9, 2001. However, an expectation of 60 qualifying stem cell lines shrank to 21 when most of them were found to be not viable.

Meri Firpo, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota who's doing federally and privately funded stem cell research on diabetes, said lifting Bush's restrictions "is going to not only open the number of cell lines scientists can use but open up the number of scientists who can do embryonic stem cell research at all."

However, she said the National Institutes of Health is squeezed for money. "Really what has to happen for the full impact of this reversal to be played out is for the president and Congress to increase funding of NIH in the long term."

Even so, Bernard Siegel, the founder and executive director of the Genetics Policy Institute, said Obama's anticipated move is "a major victory for all of us who have been fighting for years for stem cell research. It's time for scientific policy to not be based on ideology, but on scientific merit."

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Genetics Policy Institute

California Institute for Regenerative Medicine

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