Editorial: Removing the shackles

Published in The Hindu on March 13, 2009

With a stroke of a pen, President Barack Obama has removed the shackles stifling embryonic stem cell research in the United States. His executive order brings to an end the eight-year-old battle by the country’s scientific community to overturn George W. Bush’s policy of limited federal funding to embryonic stem cell lines created prior to August 9, 2001. This new field could define a paradigm shift in the way many diseases will be treated. Although it was widely believed that Mr. Obama would allow federally funded research to be carried out on stem cell lines derived from embryos discarded at infertility clinics, the executive order has not addressed this issue. Instead, it has left it to the National Institutes of Health to decide within 120 days where the embryos used for research should come from. The President’s message that “medical miracles do not happen simply by accident…they result from costly research” and that the government will “vigorously support scientists who pursue this research” offers an exciting opportunity to science. Liberal financial support from the government is essential to help researchers gain a better understanding of embryonic stem cell science. It is also necessary if the U.S. wishes to catch up with European and Asian countries whose governments decided to go the opposite way when Mr. Bush took the obscurantist route.

Research involving adult stem cells has shown great promise in treating diseases. Scientists have recently been able to turn adult stem cells into embryonic-like stem cells that are safer. Several efforts involving adult stem cells are at the early stages of clinical trials. Embryonic stem cells research, on the other hand, is still in its infancy and may take many more years to reach the same level of maturity. The first trial using embryonic stem cells to treat spinal cord injury was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration after Mr. Obama’s inauguration. The hope is that the favourable environment provided by the new administration will attract many more talented scientists to speed up cutting-edge research. Quite a few of them have been into embryonic stem cell research using private funds, although on a smaller scale since 2001. The promise of an environment that allows “free and open inquiry…free from manipulation and coercion” is just the spur stem cell researchers have been waiting for. It is quite possible that embryonic stem cells may not turn out to be the best candidate for treating diseases. But science needs to study the two alternatives before arriving at any conclusion.

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