A New Era for Stem Cell Research and Scientific Integrity

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Before a packed East Room audience yesterday, President Obama signed an executive order reversing the Bush administration’s restrictions on federal funding of research that involves human embryonic stem cells. The long-expected change in policy will help U.S. researchers compete with other nations in stem cell research. Indeed, United Kingdom stem cell scientists are already voicing concerns that the U.K. may lose its place to the U.S. as the world leader of stem cell research [1].

According to the President, under the Bush administration the federal government forced a false choice between sound science and moral values [2]:

In recent years, when it comes to stem cell research, rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values. In this case, I believe the two are not inconsistent. As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research — and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly.

It’s a difficult and delicate balance. And many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research. And I understand their concerns, and I believe that we must respect their point of view.

But after much discussion, debate and reflection, the proper course has become clear. The majority of Americans — from across the political spectrum, and from all backgrounds and beliefs — have come to a consensus that we should pursue this research; that the potential it offers is great, and with proper guidelines and strict oversight, the perils can be avoided.

obama-stem-cellsThe move is welcomed by stem cell researchers but will likely be condemned by conservative right-to-life groups. According to a CNN report, the revision has “exposed a clear rift between the more moderate and conservative factions of the GOP” [3]. Last month, a group of moderate GOP congressmen sent the President a letter urging him to lift the funding restrictions, and former first lady Nancy Reagan issued a statement earlier today thanking President Obama for the change in policy.

President George W. Bush put in place restrictions for the funding of research on human embryonic stem cells, limiting federal funding to research that used stem cell lines created before August 9th, 2001. That amounted to 60 lines, just over one-third of which proved useful to researchers. Since 2001, hundreds of stem cell lines have been created. Scientists say they are better suited for creating therapies than for doing basic laboratory science.

Stem cells are obtained from days-old embryos, typically obtained from fertility clinics, that must be destroyed to derive new embryonic cell lines. The embryos are leftover and destined to be thrown away.

Conservative thinkers and scientists have argued that adult stem cells should be used instead, since they are found in developed tissues and embryos do not need to be destroyed. However, scientists disagree, pointing out that embryonic stem cells can become all cell types of the body because they are pluripotent, while adult stem cells are typically limited to differentiating into different cell types of their tissue of origin (i.e. multipotent).

For more information on stem cell research, see the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Stem Cell Information page: Highlights of Stem Cell Research.

Scientific Integrity

In addition to lifting federal funding restrictions for embryonic stem cell research, the President carried out his campaign promise to base government decisions on scientific evidence, signing a memorandum aimed at restoring scientific integrity to government decison making [4]:

This Order is an important step in advancing the cause of science in America. But let’s be clear: promoting science isn’t just about providing resources — it is also about protecting free and open inquiry. It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient — especially when it’s inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda — and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.

The order has greater significance that perhaps even the reversal of federal funding of stem cell research, since it asserts that scientific evidence is central to the issues of everyday life, an aspect of government decision making that has been lacking for the last 8 years.

References

  1. What next for stem cell research? BBC News. 2009 Mar 9.
  2. Obama’s Remarks on Stem Cell Research. New York Times. 2009 Mar 9.
  3. Obama overturns Bush policy on stem cells. CNN. 2009 Mar 9.
  4. Stem-Cell Restrictions Lifted. Technology Review. 2009 Mar 9.
About the Author

Walter Jessen is a senior writer for Highlight HEALTH Media.