Embryonic stem cell research winter ends

Published in The Hindu on March 12, 2009


By signing an executive order, President Barack Obama on March 9 has reversed George W. Bush’s limited federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Bush’s policy made only those embryonic stem cell lines created before August 9, 2001 eligible for federal funding.

By this order, medical research in the U.S. will unfold in a dramatically different way. The large pool of scientists and well equipped laboratories will see embryonic stem cell research undergoing a quick metamorphosis from a nascent to advanced science.

Paradigm shift

Stem cell therapy is seen as defining a paradigm shift in the way diseases are treated. And generous funding by the government and enabling scientists to conduct research without any restrictions will see an eventful two decades of research and therapy.

Obama’s address after signing the order highlighted the many problems that researchers faced in the U.S. during the Bush regime and how he (Obama) would chart a new course that would encourage research.

Scientific temper

His emphatic declaration, “We will vigorously support scientists who pursue this [embryonic stem cell] research,” and also provide an environment that will allow “free and open enquiry” indicates the scientific temper of the new President.

But the best part was his statement that he would ensure that “scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda” and that scientific decisions are taken based on “facts, not ideology.”

These were some of the attitudes that were missing in the U.S. during the last eight years.

A President with a scientific temper is surely going to do a lot of good for science. Now it remains to be seen what steps he would initiate to spur research in areas that would address the problem of pollution.

Foregone conclusion

That Mr. Obama would lift the ban once he became the President was a forgone conclusion. After all, he was a co-sponsor of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007 and reversing the ban was one of his election promises.

But the order has not clearly stated which stem cell lines would be eligible for government support. All that has been stated is that the government would support embryonic stem cell research “to the extent permitted by law.”

The executive order requires the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to draw the guidelines.

It was widely believed that he would provide federal funding for stem cell lines that have already been derived from the embryos that were stored in infertility clinics.

But by leaving the issue open, some people think that Obama may actually allow federal funding for the creation of embryonic stem cell lines. But this is going to be a contentious issue.

According to the New York Times, “the President would leave it to Congress to determine whether the long-standing legislative ban on federal financing for human embryo experiments should also be overturned.” The President does not have the power to overturn the Dickey-Wicker ban.

Not permitted

Currently, creation of new embryonic stem cell lines from embryos using federal funding is not permitted under law (the Dickey-Wicker Amendment of 1996). Harvesting embryonic stem cells from embryos destroys the embryos.

And the Dickey-Wicker Amendment of 1996 does not permit the use of federal funds for research that involves the destruction or injury of a human embryo.

Similarly using federal funding to create embryos with an explicit intent of harvesting embryonic stem cells would also not be currently possible under the Dickey-Wicker Amendment.