And those with religious and moral objections to the research, which requires the destruction of microscopic human embryos, are looking on -- and lobbying -- just as anxiously.
President George W. Bush and his health secretary Tommy Thompson are expected to make a funding decision later this year.
In a legal maneuver, former President Bill Clinton OK'd the controversial research during his term in office. No money's gone out yet to researchers, however, as Bush reviews Clinton's move. Meanwhile, last week, Christian groups filed a lawsuit against Thompson, arguing that funding the research would be both illegal and immoral.
The potential for stem cells has electrified most in the biomedical research community. Early research suggests that the cells, which have not yet matured into specific cell types, like muscle cells or blood cells, could be multiplied and controlled to make healthy cells of various kinds. That could be a formidable weapon against a variety of dreaded ailments, from Parkinson's, Lou Gehrig's, and Alzheimer's diseases, to diabetes and cancer.
Today marks the federal deadline for researchers seeking funding to submit key information to the National Institutes of Health. But few investigators are stepping forward for this cycle's federal money.
Federal law prohibits U.S. spending on research that destroys embryos, but the Clinton administration made a special legal ruling that said that the law wouldn't prevent the NIH from funding stem cell research. The ruling stipulated, however, that federal money couldn't go toward the actual removal of the cells from the embryos.
The main source of the embryos would be "excess" embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics around the country.
Under stem cell research guidelines developed by the NIH during Clinton's tenure, embryos could not be created simply for the purpose of providing stem cells for researchers. And couples who had donated embryos to fertility clinics would have to consent to letting the embryos be used for stem cell research.
The scientific community says it is hopeful that Bush will end up upholding Clinton's decision to permit funding, but is fearful of the current climate.
Pioneering stem cell researcher John Gearhart, PhD, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, tells WebMD, "We're interested in federal funding, but we decided not to submit an application. If you're going to expend energies, you would like to know that there is at least the possibility of a good outcome. Currently, I think I would rather sit back and wait and see what the determination by Tommy Thompson and Mr. Bush is going to be."
Tony Mazzaschi, a biomedical research expert at the Association of American Medical Colleges, tells WebMD, "Until things are clarified, why go through the effort and hang yourself out there. There's a lot of fear of retribution, I'm afraid, from protesters."
According to Tim Leshan, director of public policy at the American Society for Cell Biology, "I don't know if the scientists have all been scared off, but I do think that there probably won't be as many applications as one might hope for, given the politics and given the reality of getting stem cells that comply with the NIH guidelines."
Meanwhile, opponents of the research say they are hopeful that Bush will stop it, even as they voice concern that he has not yet used executive authority to simply cut off the possibility of funding.
Gene Tarne, communications director for the Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics, tells WebMD, "President Bush had said during the campaign that he was opposed to this type of research. We were hoping that there might have been some administrative action to stop the government funding. We are somewhat disappointed that the action has not taken place yet, but we are still hopeful that there will be some action."
The coalition has a web site, www.stemcellresearch.org, which outlines objections to the initiative. The group argues that scientists should focus their research on stem cells found in adults, but researchers say that there isn't as much evidence there as with the embryonic cells.
It's almost anyone's guess what's going to happen to federal funding. Alta Charo,a professor of law and medical ethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and a member of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, tells WebMD, "I don't think it's likely that we're going to see federal funding of this research."
Charo says, "Although the Bush administration is certainly under pressure from patient groups and from the pharmaceutical industry to release federal funding, it nonetheless knows that this is an issue being watched very closely by a core set of [Bush] supporters, namely the antiabortion activists. They are well-organized, and they vote in very high numbers."
But George Annas, a professor of health law at Boston University, tells WebMD, "There is much more political support behind stem cell research than, for example, there is for funding for abortion counseling. I think that there is at least a reasonable possibility that the NIH guidelines will survive."
Wherever stem cell funding is headed, a Bush decision may be soon. A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services tells WebMD that the administration's review of funding for stem cell research will be complete in the next few months.
"What I'm sensing is that this issue will be resolved in the not-so-distant future," Gearhart tells WebMD. He expects a decision well before the end of the fiscal year in September.