WASHINGTON – Fulfilling a campaign pledge, President Barack Obama will sign an executive order Monday rescinding restrictions on federal funding for human embryonic stem-cell research, administration officials said Friday, making hundreds of millions of new dollars available for such research.
President George W. Bush had limited funding from the National Institutes of Health and other government agencies to a handful of cell lines created with private money before August 2001 so that taxpayers would not have to pay for the sacrifice of embryos, viewed by some social conservatives as tantamount to murder.
The signing is expected to take place during an event intended to highlight the importance of “sound science” in government policymaking, according to one official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Details of the executive order were not available, but people who had been briefed said Obama would ask the Department of Health and Human Services, which operates the National Institutes of Health, to work out the specifics.
Across the country, stem cell scientists are counting down the final hours of the Bush policy with glee. They charge that it has slowed the pace of research into cures for diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis, to the detriment of millions of patients.
A policy change will give those efforts a significant boost, as well as advance scientists’ efforts to use the cells to make replacement tissues like new cardiac muscle for treating heart attack patients and nerve cells for repairing spinal cord injuries.
Reversing the policy will give scientists unfettered access to hundreds of newer stem cells that are free of the chromosomal abnormalities and animal molecules that plague the so-called presidential cell lines, rendering them problematic for use as potential medical therapies.
Many scientists are also eager to get their hands on the dozens of new lines that carry the genetic signature of diseases they study. None of the presidential lines has that feature.
Stem cell scientist Julie Baker plans to celebrate by peeling dozens of color-coded stickers off the equipment in her carefully segregated lab at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Green labels are affixed to microscopes, incubators and other supplies that are currently permitted to be used on federally funded research. Red labels are stuck to equipment that must be used when working with cell lines that are on the wrong side of the Bush policy.
“It was such a disaster,” Baker said.
The Bush policy wasn’t always so disdained. For the first time, it allowed some of the NIH’s $28 billion annual research budget to flow to human embryonic stem cell projects, to the satisfaction of scientists and patient advocacy groups.
But discontent began to grow as scientists realized that only about 20 of the 78 lines eligible for federal funding were usable. Some were duplicates. Some weren’t available to license. Some were dead, and others too stubborn to work with.
Baker said she “slogged away with the presidential lines” in her studies on the development of very early embryos, but ultimately decided she needed to make fresh stem cells. It took nearly two years to figure out how to conduct her work without running afoul of the federal government.
Once the executive order is signed, scientists will gain easy access to hundreds of stem cell lines created in the past 7 1/2 years that are better suited for a variety of experiments. That will encourage more investigators to use them.