President Barack Obama signed an executive order on Monday to reverse the ban on federally funded embryonic stem cell research established by President George W. Bush. Obama fulfilled a campaign promise in a signing ceremony before a packed East Room audience at the White House. With the signing, the federal government's primary agency for medical research, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), no longer is restricted from offering federal tax dollars to scientists who want to study stem cells derived from human embryos.
Obama leaves decisions regarding how funds are dispersed to the discretion of the NIH, which must rewrite its research guidelines within four months. (The agency was dealt an extra $10 billion in the president's stimulus plan, mainly for science grants.) Scientists who use federal grants still do not have the authority to create their own stem cell lines, due to a piece of legislation called the Dickey-Wicker amendment that has been renewed by Congress every year since 1996. The amendment bars NIH money from being used to create embryos or to conduct research in a way that knowingly harms them, so labs must work with stem cells that are extracted by a third party. But there are rumblings that the Democrat-controlled Congress may try to remove the Dickey-Wicker amendment. On Sunday, Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., said she'll be speaking with her colleagues about the amendment and that she'll confer with the White House about how to write Obama's stem cell policy into law, eliminating the possibility that a future president might reverse it.
Aides to Obama told reporters in a phone conference Sunday that the new administration intends to be led by a "responsible practice of science and evidence instead of dogma." Harold Varmus of the president's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology said, "We view what happened with stem cell research in the last administration as one manifestation of failure to think carefully about how federal support of science and the use of scientific advice occurs." Obama also signed a presidential memorandum on Monday that orders the Office of Science and Technology Policy to establish standards to vet appointees to federal science positions.
Bush had allowed grant recipients to experiment with embryonic stem cell colonies created before Aug. 9, 2001, but any created after that date couldn't be touched with taxpayer cash. Many researchers simply continued their projects during the past eight years using state and private funding. They've complained about the necessity of running separate labs-stocked with separately purchased microscopes, plastic pipettes, and even water-that were made necessary to segregate privately from federally funded stem cell research. They also argue that the embryos in question are usually leftover from fertility clinics and would be destroyed anyway.
But science-not dogma-is increasingly supporting the validity of adult stem cell research. This month separate scientific teams have announced improvements in the safety of induced pluripotent stem cells, which behave like embryonic stem cells and don't require the death of an embryo. Stem cells derived from sources like bone marrow and umbilical cord blood have been shown in actual medical practice to successfully treat leukemia, sickle cell anemia, severe combined immunodeficiency, (see "Miracle Cells," WORLD, Feb. 5, 2005) and has presumably cured at least one case of HIV. The effectiveness of embryonic stem cell therapies remains unproven. The world's first clinical trial of embryonic stem cell treatment, for spinal cord injuries, was just approved by the FDA in January.