President Barack Obama is ending former President George W. Bush’s limits on using federal dollars for embryonic stem cell research, with advisers calling the move a clear signal that science — not political ideology — will guide the administration.
Obama was to sign an executive order and memo Monday in an East Room ceremony, a long-promised move that would fill a campaign promise. Advisers said it was part of a broader declaration on science that would guide the administration’s policies on matters ranging from renewable energy to climate change.
"I would simply say this memorandum is not concerned solely — or even specifically — with stem cell research," said Harold Varmus, chairman of the White House’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. He said it would address how the government uses science and who is advising officials across federal agencies.
Bush limited taxpayer money for embryonic stem cell research to a small number of stem cell lines that were created before Aug. 9, 2001. Many of those faced drawbacks. Hundreds more of such lines — groups of cells that can continue to propagate in lab dishes — have been created since then. Scientists say those newer lines are healthier and better suited to creating treatments for diseases, but they were largely off-limits to researchers who took federal dollars.
"We’ve got eight years of science to make up for," said Dr. Curt Civin, whose research allowed scientists to isolate stem cells and who now serves as the founding director of the University of Maryland Center for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. "Now the silly restrictions are lifted."
The proposed changes do not fund creation of new lines, nor specify which existing lines can be used. They mean that scientists, who until now have had to rely on private donations to work with these newer stem cell lines, can apply for government money for the research, just like they do for studies of gene therapy or other treatment approaches.
At the same event, the president planned to announce safeguards through the National Institutes of Health so science is protected from political interference.
"We view what happened with stem cell research in the last administration is one manifestation of failure to think carefully about how federal support of science and the use of scientific advice occurs," Varmus said.
Embryonic stem cells are master cells that can morph into any cell of the body. Scientists hope to harness them so they can create replacement tissues to treat a variety of diseases — such as new insulin-producing cells for diabetics, cells that could help those with Parkinson’s disease or maybe even Alzheimer’s, or new nerve connections to restore movement after spinal injury.
Bush and his supporters said they were defending human life; days-old embryos — typically from fertility-clinic leftovers otherwise destined to be thrown away — are destroyed for the stem cells.
The long-promised move will allow a rush of research aimed at one day better treating, if not curing, ailments from diabetes to paralysis — research that has drawn broad support, including from notables such as Nancy Reagan, widow of the late Republican President Ronald Reagan, and the late Christopher Reeve.
The move also will highlight divisions within the Republican Party, now in the minority and lacking votes in Congress to stop Obama.
Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House, said the focus should be on the economy, not on a long-simmering debate over stem cells.
"Frankly, federal funding of embryonic stem cell research can bring on embryo harvesting, perhaps even human cloning that occurs," he said Sunday on CNN’s "State of the Union." "We don’t want that. … And certainly that is something that we ought to be talking about, but let’s take care of business first. People are out of jobs."