April 12, 2024

Obama lifts ban on embryo funding

Scientist jubilant

The President shakes hands with Rep Jim Langevin of Rhode Island, who was paralyzed at the age of 16 at the signing, attended by 30 members of Congress and 10 Nobel LaureatesFulfilling a
campaign promise, US President Barack Obama reversed his
predecessor’s ban on federal funding for embryonic stem research on
Monday. From now on, American scientists may receive Federal
government support for research on stem cells taken from embryos,
whether they are clones or IVF spares. Most scientists were jubilant
– 10 Nobel laureates flanked the President as he signed an
executive order.

"What happened today
is huge," says Kevin Wilson, director of public policy at the
American Society for Cell Biology. "We’ve gone from having a
small number of cell lines eligible for federal funding to having at
least a few hundred."

In some ways, the
President’s decision is less significant than the jubilation
suggests. First of all, it leaves in place a major obstacle to
cloning embryos, the 1996 Dickey-Wicker amendment. This bans funding
for research that involves the destruction, injury or death of a
human embryo. So to do therapeutic cloning, scientists will still
have to obtain funding from state governments or private donors,
although they can now use stem cell lines derived from cloned

This is why the New
York Times complained
the job of dismantling President Bush’s respect-for-embryos approach
remains unfinished: “Congress should follow Mr Obama’s lead and
lift this prohibition so such important work can benefit from an
infusion of federal dollars.” But whether Congress will support
cloning embryos is anyone’s guess.

Second, human
embryonic stem cells are practically obsolete, at least for curing
dread diseases and injuries like spinal cord injury, Parkinson’s
disease and diabetes. A breakthrough discovery in November 2007
showed that pluripotent cells with all of their potential could be
created from ordinary skin cells – without the ethical baggage. And
despite all the controversy surrounding embryonic cells, most people
do not realise that no one has yet created a successful stem cell
line from a human clone.

Many scientists now
believe that cures will come from this new type of stem cell, induced
pluripotent stem cells, and that embryonic stem cells will be used
mostly for drug discovery, genetic research, and for benchmarking the
performance of other types of stem cells.

Obama tactfully alluded to
this in his
eloquent speech
. “At this moment, the full promise of stem cell
research remains unknown,” he said, “and it should not be
overstated… I cannot guarantee that we will find the treatments and
cures we seek. No President can promise that.”

So the main effect
of Obama’s decision was to boost the morale of an important
constituency, the scientific community. To cement his image as a
flagbearer of enlightened thinking, the President also set down
for his Administration which
guarantee scientists freedom from political interference.

The announcement,
paradoxically, may not be good news for the biggest stem cell
institute in the world, the California Institute for Regenerative
Medicine. It was created in 2004 to work with embryonic stem cells
because the Bush administration had been so intransigent. But now
that the Federal government will be doling out funds, it is beginning
to look superfluous, especially after California was forced to paper
over a US$41 billion budget deficit with increased taxes, service
cuts and borrowing. Jesse Reynolds, a policy analyst at the Center
for Genetics and Society, told the
York Times
: “The key question is
whether the continued existence of CIRM is justified. Increasingly,
signs are pointing to no, it’s not.”

And British
scientists are worried that their competitive edge – the relative
lack of restrictions on embryo research – has been eroded. Now that
the money tap has been opened in the US, researchers may cross the
Atlantic. This could lead to more pleas for government funding and
for even more liberal legislation. “We absolutely have to
streamline the regulation, or we will get nowhere,”
Robin Lovell-Badge
, of the UK
National Institute for Medical Research.