Embryonic stem cells will give new life to medical research


POSTED: Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Medical research in the United States has suffered for nearly four years because of former President George W. Bush's funding limitations on embryonic stem cell research. Those limits have been lifted by President Barack Obama in a way that adequately recognizes ethical concerns, including an absolute ban on human cloning.

During those years, significant research advances have been made in the use of adult stem cells, but scientists say they need both those and stem cells from human embryos that have been destined instead for the garbage bin. Obama said an executive order he signed on Monday will establish “;proper guidelines and strict oversight”; to be detailed within four months by the National Institutes of Health.

Bush had insisted that embryos are human beings and that destruction of an embryo is tantamount to murder. He allowed federal funding on 60 existing stem cell lines, but it soon became apparent that only 21 colonies were available for medical research. Obama's order will add hundreds of stem cell lines that have been developed since Bush's order.

Referring to Bush's “;false choice between sound science and moral values,”; Obama overturned the Aug. 9, 2001, restriction, which had been favored by religious conservatives. “;As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering,”; he said.

Obama's signature brings new hope to families trying to cope with Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and Lou Gehrig's diseases, heart problems, spinal cord injuries, juvenile diabetes and other ailments. Scientists have had to rely on private donations and expenditures by states to finance stem cell research.

In California, which approved a $3 billion bond measure five years ago to finance stem cell research, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called Obama's order “;a huge win for the millions of people”; who suffer from the diseases. Nancy Reagan, whose husband, former President Ronald Reagan, suffered from Alzheimer's disease, expressed her gratitude to Obama.

Hawaii could not afford to provide funding for embryonic stem cell research, but Obama's order renewing federal funding could be beneficial to the John A. Burns School of Medicine at the University of Hawaii, which pioneered in biomedical research. While UH researchers successfully cloned mice for the first time, they warned that cloning of humans is fraught with insurmountable risk.

The National Institutes of Health is to receive about $10 billion for research grants over a two-year period as part of the $787 billion economic stimulus package that the president signed last month. UH should step to the front of the line.