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Obama to reverse stem cell limits

Plans to lift Bush's ban on federal funds

By Carolyn Y. Johnson and Joseph Williams
Globe Staff / March 7, 2009
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President Obama plans to sign an executive order on Monday overturning his predecessor's restrictions on stem cell research, and scientists in the Boston area and nationally reacted with a mix of excitement and relief at the prospect of expanded funding.

The White House sent out an e-mail yesterday saying it was planning a ceremony "on stem cells and restoring scientific integrity to the government process. At the event the president will sign an executive order related to stem cells."

Sources in Washington said the order would lift the restrictions on federal funding of research using human embryonic stem cells, which were put in place by President George W. Bush in August 2001.

Obama had promised during his campaign to reverse the policy early in his presidency, and stem cell researchers hailed and welcomed the change as a significant boost for a field that holds the tantalizing possibility of eventually growing replacement tissues for patients, but that has been mired in ethical and political debate.

Opponents of the research blasted the presi dent yesterday, saying the work is unethical because it involves destruction of human embryos and that many advances have been made in the field despite the funding restrictions.

Bush's executive order banned federal funding of research on embryonic stem cell lines created after Aug. 9, 2001. Scientists, who typically depend on federal money for basic research, were limited to using 21 lines of stem cells, and some of those turned out to be unsuitable for research. Stem cell researchers had to find private sources of money to continue most of the work.

Scientists say the lack of federal funding caused young researchers to shy away from the work, limited research to institutions and states that were able to raise their own funds, and forced researchers to keep two sets of expensive equipment, one for their federally funded research and the other for privately supported work.

"This will be an enormous relief, because of the enormous constraints under which we've operated," said Douglas Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, one of the places where research has continued because of collaboration between scientists, hospitals, and donors. "What I very much hope is that researchers who have been unable to study these cells will now be excited by the fact they are accessible and can be used in labs all over the US."

Amy Comstock Rick, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, an advocacy group that supports embryonic stem cell research, said she received an invitation to the Monday event.

"We certainly know it's a stem cell event, and it's our every expectation and wish that it's where Obama will sign an executive order completely rescinding" Bush's policy, Rick said. "We're pretty excited and happy."

The move to open up the research to federal funding comes at an opportune moment. The National Institutes of Health received $8.2 billion for research in the stimulus package passed last month, and stem cell researchers look forward to applying for grants from that pot.

Stem cell opponents said an expansion of federal funding for stem cell research was unacceptable.

"I think that we would be witnessing a situation where the federal government, while not directly financing the destruction of embryonic humans, would nevertheless become complicit in the destruction of those humans," said Reverend Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education for the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia.

Human embryonic stem cells are extracted from embryos, often ones obtained from fertility clinics. They have the capacity to develop into any tissue in the body, such as insulin-producing cells that could one day be used to treat diabetics or neurons that might be used to repair spinal cord injuries.

Critics of the use of embryonic stem cells note that scientists have recently developed methods to create cells that behave like embryonic stem cells, by reprogramming skin cells instead of using embryos.

Thomas Murray, president of the Hastings Center, a nonpartisan bioethics research center, said care would have to be taken to ensure that embryonic stem cell lines were derived in a responsible way, including not paying women for their eggs, and getting fully informed consent of egg donors.

"So I think with those sorts of protections, I would today continue to support embryonic stem cell research and federal funding of embryonic stem cell research," Murray said.

Even without federal funding, the research has continued at places like Harvard, where donors pitched in to support the research. It also garnered support from states, including California and Massachusetts. This fall, the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, the quasi-public agency that is the steward of the state's $1 billion investment in biotechnology, gave $8 million to support a stem cell bank and international stem cell registry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.

Dr. Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer of the beleaguered Worcester stem cell company Advanced Cell Technology, said ever since Obama was elected, it has been easier to raise money, and predicted that a reversal of the restrictions would help research outside academia, too.

"Hallelujah, this marks the end of a long and repressive chapter in scientific history," Lanza said. "It will not only impact research in the laboratory, but it finally lifts the black cloud that has hovered over this research for so long."

The biggest impact, however, might be to let stem cell science move beyond the borders of the institutions and states that have managed to support the work.

"As much as I'd like to think Harvard has some claim on genius, it certainly doesn't have a monopoly," said Dr. David Scadden, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. "It would be great to see the field now blossom - this area does capture people's imaginations."

Scadden, who said his lab was filled with duplicate equipment marked with stickers signaling which equipment was federally funded (red) and which was not (green), said that the end of the restrictions would call for a special kind of graffiti.

"I think we're actually going to annotate them now, and put some celebratory sticker on top of them," Scadden said. "Something that says, 'We're back.' "

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com.

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