Scientists Heartened at Prospect of End to Stem Cell Ban
Move by Obama expected to kick-start efforts to unlock therapeutic potential
By Amanda Gardner
Researchers are rejoicing over President Barack Obama's anticipated lifting of the eight-year ban on embryonic stem cell research imposed by his predecessor, President George W. Bush.
The anticipation moved one step closer to reality Thursday, with media reports that Obama gave House Democrats at a closed-door Virginia retreat a "guarantee" that he would sign an executive order overturning Bush's policy.
"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. "It's a statement that we're going to again believe in science."
Yet those same experts are aware that the sobering state of the economy could impose its own restrictions on this type of research.
"This clearly is a very important part of our medical future," said Paul Sanberg, distinguished professor of neurosurgery and director of the University of South Florida Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair in Tampa. "[But] to clear the path for this without giving additional money to the National Institutes of Health will be disappointing. I hope the stimulus package also includes an increase in embryonic stem cell funding."
Sanberg also expressed concern that any monies redirected to stem cell research could divert funds from other critical avenues of research. "If it's a normal competitive process, it will take money away from other programs," he said.
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 U.S. National Institutes of Health.
National polls continue to find that the majority of Americans favors 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 National Institutes of Health.
Prockop said embryonic stem cells "are mainly of interest as a research tool and a biological experimental system. Their use in patients in spite of that recent approval for Geron is really very questionable because of the potential for tumors."
Still, the anticipated lessening of restrictions by the Obama administration may help funnel more private money into stem cell research, the experts said.
"This should give more general acceptance to stem cell research, because now, there won't be this stigma associated with it as much," Sanberg said.
And, perhaps, a new federal policy would spur organizations such as the American Heart Association -- which currently does not fund research involving human embryonic stem cells or stem cells derived from fetal tissue -- to channel funds into this line of research, Sanberg added. (The heart association said it "recognizes the value of all types of stem cell research and supports federal funding of this research.")
Still, Sanberg pointed out, some ethical issues surrounding stem cell research and its application will remain.
For instance, he said, "There still needs to be some oversight on the uses of stem cells and cloning."
To learn more about stem cells, visit the U.S. National Institutes of Health.