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Obama Could Soon Overturn Bush’s Stem Cell Funding Ban

February 18, 2009 11:07 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
An aide has said President Barack Obama will soon lift a ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research that was enacted under President George W. Bush.

Some Eager for Ban to Be Lifted

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In 2001, then-President George W. Bush instituted a federal ban involving embryonic stem cell research. The ban did not prohibit scientists from using embryonic stem cells in research. Instead, Bush prohibited the federal government from funding research involving all but a small group of stem cell lines created before August 2001.

Now that President Barack Obama has taken office, it looks like the embryonic stem cell funding ban will be lifted. Obama advisor David Axelrod told Fox News Sunday, “We’re going to be doing something on that soon, I think. The president is considering that right now,” Reuters reported. In lifting the ban, Obama would be following up on a campaign promise.

Though Axelrod gave no timeline, the pledge appeared to be enough for investors. Stocks for some companies that worked with stem cells rose on Tuesday, the Associated Press reported. Financial markets were closed for the holiday on Monday.

Embryonic stem cell research has been controversial since it was discovered the cells could turn into any type of cell in the body. To generate the cells, a human egg must be fertilized and allowed to develop for a few days, and after the cells are harvested the embryo is destroyed.

According to a policy brief created by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, human embryonic stem cell opponents object to research that harms or destroys a fertilized human egg. Many religions teach that life begins at the point of conception, though not everyone agrees.

Embryonic stem cell advocates say that a human embryo can’t be considered a human being until it’s been implanted into a woman’s uterus.

Ideas involving the use of extra embryos created during in vitro fertilization have also been nixed, also on the grounds that a life would be destroyed, the AAAS said.

In 2005, Kristen Philipkoski of Wired magazine wrote about the differences between adult and embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells come from embryos that are up to two weeks old. Adult stem cells come from all different parts of a person’s body, including fat, hair follicles and the pancreas.

“So-called adult stem cells are multipotent because they can develop into several different types of cells, but not as many as embryonic stem cells,” Philipkoski wrote, adding that adult stem cells can’t renew themselves as well as embryonic stem cells can.

Context: Britain allows animal-human embryo stem cell research

In October, British lawmakers in the House of Commons voted 355 to 129 to permit scientists to perform stem cell research with hybrid animal-human embryos. The vote marked the first time in about 20 years that the British government confronted the issue, the Associated Press reported. 

The bill was expected to pass the House of Lords and become law by November, according to Agence France-Presse. 

Prime Minister Gordon Brown and scientists had fought for such use of stem cell research against the objections of religious leaders and other opponents for months. When the debate began, Health Minister Dawn Primarolo argued in favor of the research by saying that, “One in seven couples need help with fertility treatment, 350,000 people live with Alzheimer’s, every week there are five children born and three young people die from cystic fibrosis—all issues that this bill addresses.”

According to the AP, the process of hybrid-animal embroyo stem cell research involves, “injecting an empty cow or rabbit egg with human DNA. A burst of electricity is then used to trick the egg into dividing regularly, so that it becomes a very early embryo, from which stem cells can hopefully be extracted.”

Those who wished to reform British laws on abortion were disappointed, however, that the House did not use the opportunity to debate the abortion issue.

Background: Progress in stem cell research

Recent studies involving adult stem cells have shown great promise in treating diseases such as multiple sclerosis and improving outcomes after organ transplants.

Injuries that used to end horses’ careers are being repaired with their own stem cells, reports Wired magazine. National Institutes of Health researchers are growing human spinal disks, cartilage and muscle in the labs, though the tissues aren’t ready to be used yet.

“Stem cells are very promising, but what they do for horses may not work so well for humans because humans are the hardest animal to rebuild,” said Rocky Tuan, a researcher at NIH, in an interview with Wired.

Last year, another research team said it was able to reprogram human skin cells to act like embryonic stem cells, or cells that can turn into any type of human tissue.

In the past decade, science has learned quite a bit about what adult stem cells can and can’t do. Adult stem cells don’t carry any federal limits or the baggage embryonic stem cells do.

But not all adult stem cell research has been so promising. Scientists haven’t been able to replicate some of the most exciting adult stem cell studies, according to Scientific American. Another NIH researcher, Eva Mezey, told Scientific American last year that embryonic stem cells are still more versatile than adult stem cells.

Opinion & Analysis: ‘Shackled’ research vs. the end of embryonic stem cells

Thomas Robey, a medical student at the University of Washington, recently reflected on the years since President George W. Bush enacted a ban on using federal money to develop and research new embryonic stem cell lines.

“The end result of the policy is that, anything goes if you have your own money.  This slowed down all of the richest universities, but did not stop them, because research was still permitted on the ‘presidentially approved’ lines,” Robey wrote.

Though the development of another series of stem cells that look like embryonic stem cells does not make human embryo stem cell research unnecessary, they do have their benefits.

“These cells do present a true middle ground between the scientific proponents and religious opponents to [human embryonic stem cell] research,” he wrote on the blog Clashing Culture.

But Yuval Levin, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., believes advances in other types of stem cells may be the answer to the embryonic stem cell ethics debate.

“I think that, in time, this probably will be the final chapter of this particular debate about embryonic stem cells, but I don’t think we’re at the end of it quite yet,” Levin said in a July interview with The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Reference: Stem cells explained

Related Topics: Cord blood’s potential; Obama undoing Bush’s work

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