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Obama Lifts Ban on Stem Cell Research

Scientists applaud his action, which is expected to kick-start efforts to unlock therapeutic potential

MONDAY, March 9 (HealthDay News) -- Separating science from politics with his signature, President Barack Obama lifted the eight-year ban on embryonic stem cell research on Monday.

During a late morning press conference, Obama issued the executive order removing federal funding limits on such research that were first imposed by his predecessor, President George W. Bush, in 2001.

According to the Associated Press, Obama said Monday that he is allowing federal taxpayer dollars to fund significantly broader research on embryonic stem cells because "medical miracles do not happen simply by accident," and promised his administration would make up for the ground lost under his predecessor.

The Obama order does not address a separate legislative ban, which precludes any federal money paying for the development of stem cell lines, according to the AP. The legislation, however, does not prevent funds for research on those lines created without federal funding.

While The New York Times reported that it may take many months for the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop new guidelines for stem cell research, scientists were already applauding the president's actions.

"The availability of federal funding for research on cell lines that had been off limits during the Bush administration, coupled with billions of newly available dollars in federal stimulus money, could set the stage for a tidal wave of support that could propel stem cell research well into the next decade -- if things move quickly," said a statement from Stanford University researchers in California.

"This action is both welcome and overdue," Dr. Philip Pizzo, dean of the Stanford School of Medicine and a governing board member of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, said in the statement. "This vote of confidence from President Obama in the promise of embryonic stem cell research validates and extends CIRM's mission to help millions of people suffering from currently incurable medical conditions. It is also a powerful signal that advances in medical research must be pursued even in times of economic difficulty."

Peter T. Wilderotter, president and CEO of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation in Short Hills, N.J., said in a statement, "With a stroke of his pen, President Obama acknowledged the will of the majority of Americans and harnessed the power of the federal government to move research forward. By removing politics from science, President Obama has freed researchers to explore these remarkable stem cells, learn from them and possibly develop effective therapies using them."

The general enthusiasm followed a wave of similar sentiments last month when initial reports of the new policy came out of a closed-door meeting between Obama and House of Representatives' Democrats.

"It's going to remove an embarrassment for American science," said Dr. Darwin Prockop, director of the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Scott & White Hospital in Temple, said in February. "It's a statement that we're going to again believe in science."

Stem cell research received a big boost in January, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first-ever human trial using embryonic stem cells as a medical treatment.

Geron Corp., a California-based biotech company, was given the OK to implant embryonic stem cells in eight to 10 paraplegic patients who can use their arms but can't walk.

In 2001, then-President Bush limited federal funding for stem cell research only to human embryonic stem cell lines that already existed.

The decision prompted some scientists to worry that the United States would fall behind other countries in the drive to unlock the potential of stem cell research.

Embryonic stem cells are the most basic human cells, believed to be capable of growing into any type of cell in the body. Working as a sort of repair system for the body, they can theoretically divide without limit to replenish other cells. The scientific hope is that stem cells may, at some point in the future, become capable of treating a variety of diseases and conditions, such as Parkinson's disease, diabetes, heart disease and spinal cord injuries, according to the NIH.

National polls continue to find that the majority of Americans favor embryonic stem cell research, although some surveys have found that that support has declined somewhat in recent years.

Many people object to the use of embryonic stem cells, contending that the research requires the destruction of potential life, because the cells must be extracted from human embryos.

The stem cells being used in the recently approved Geron trial were obtained from one of the Bush administration's approved stem cell lines. And no federal funds were used in the development of this treatment.

Since the restrictions on embryonic stem cell research took effect, many research institutions have redirected their focus to other types of stem cells. Prockop's institution, for instance, deals only with adult stem cells.

Adult stem cells can give rise to all the specialized types of cells found in tissue from which they originated, such as skin. But, scientists don't agree on whether adult stem cells may yield cell types other than those of the tissue from which they originate, according to the NIH.

More information

To learn more about stem cells, visit the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

SOURCES: March 6, 2009, statement, Peter T. Wilderotter, president and CEO, Christopher And Dana Reeve Foundation, Short Hills, N.J.; March 6, 2009, statement, Philip Pizzo, M.D., dean, Stanford School of Medicine, California; Darwin Prockop, M.D., Ph.D., director, Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Scott & White Hospital, Temple, Texas; The New York Times; Associated Press

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