March 9, 2009 -- President Barack Obama signed an order Monday opening up federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, clearing the way for scientists to conduct broad experiments on the cells using taxpayer dollars.
By signing an executive order, the president overturned a seven-and-a-half-year-old Bush administration policy that restricted federal funding to fewer than two dozen cell lines already derived at the time. Bush had said the limits would stop taxpayer dollars from going to research that required destroying human embryos as a source of stem cells.
Before signing the order Monday in the East Room of the White House, Obama said the Bush policy had forced "a false choice between sound science and moral values."
Though he acknowledged "a difficult balance" between the moral and scientific issues of embryonic stem cell research, Obama said the research must go forward.
"Medical miracles do not happen simply by accident. They result from painstaking and costly research, from years of lonely trial and error, much of which never bears fruit, and from a government willing to support that work," he said.
Embryonic stem cells have the ability to become any type of cell in the body. Scientists believe that makes them ideal candidates for developing potential treatments for diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and other ailments.
Researchers are also pursuing ways to reprogram adult stem cells to behave like embryonic cells. Adult stem cells are found in adults and children and can be collected without harming the donor.
Reaction From Supporters and Critics of Stem Cell Research
The president thrilled embryonic research supporters with Monday's executive order. "It's very exciting," says Ian McNiece, PhD, director of the Cell Therapies Program at the University of Miami's Stem Cell Institute.
McNiece says the 22 or so stem cell lines eligible for federally funded research under the Bush administration's policy were of only limited utility because of contamination and other issues.
"They would never have been suitable for therapies that would go back into patients," he tells WebMD. "Now we can pursue treatments that can be directed toward clinical trials and ultimately patient use."
But the order inflamed critics, who believe the research is immoral because it usually requires destroying human embryos as a source of stem cells.
"It is categorically wrong to fund unnecessary and immoral research that destroys human embryos," said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., who chairs the House Republicans Conference, in a written statement. "It's unfortunate President Obama has chosen to support the empty promises of embryonic stem cells despite the living hope available in adult stem cell research."
The president's decision is unlikely to end the debate over stem cell research. Supporters said Monday they would soon pursue legislation to codify Obama's order. "It's so that the research isn't victim to a game of political ping-pong," said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., a main sponsor of congressional efforts to expand the research.
DeGette said supporters may seek to repeal a law known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which bans the use of federal funds to destroy a human embryo for any purpose.
Irving Weissman, MD, who directs the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology, said Obama administration officials would also have to confront how to regulate a controversial process known as somatic cell nuclear transfer. The process, also known as "therapeutic cloning," is likely necessary to avoid rejection if engineered stem cell treatments are introduced into patients.
"I expect somebody will put in a grant to explore that issue. We will then find out what the regulation is," Weissman said.
Despite supporters' excitement Monday, Obama sought to temper expectations for how quickly his executive order would translate to disease cures. Embryonic stem cells have so far yielded no viable treatments, and there is no guarantee that they will, he said.
"No president can promise that," Obama said.