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Obama Lifts Stem Cell Restrictions

SOURCE: AP/Paul Sancya

Theresa Gratsch, a Ph.D. research specialist, views nerve cells derived from human embryonic stem cells under a microscope at the University of Michigan Center for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, MI. President Obama today announced he would lift restrictions on stem cell funding.

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Read also: Eight Reasons to Applaud Action on Stem Cells

Video: Jonathan Moreno on the Future of Stem Cell Research

With the stroke of a pen, President Barack Obama today erased the Bush administration’s eight-year-old restrictions on federal funding of research involving human embryonic stem cells, reaffirming his commitment to evidence and biomedical hope over his predecessor’s ideological distortion of science.

Flanked by a beaming collection of Nobel laureates, biomedical researchers, stem cell advocates, and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, Obama signed an executive order that undid Bush’s August 9, 2001, stem cell directive. The directive banned federal funding for all but the oldest 20 or so stem cell colonies out of the hundreds that have been cultivated and studied by others worldwide.

By removing Bush’s arbitrary restrictions and calling instead for new guidelines that will promote legal and ethical stem cell research, Obama ensured that the United States will live up to its potential to be a worldwide leader in the fast-moving and promising field of regenerative medicine.

At the same White House ceremony, the president signed an executive memorandum that makes exceedingly clear the public’s right to expect and get a fair presentation of the scientific facts from government agencies without political overlays, misleading nuances, or redactions of uncomfortable truths.

“Today American science policy takes an important step on a more constructive path,” said Jonathan Moreno, a professor of medical history and bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Both the order and the memorandum carry 120-day implementation deadlines for federal officials. In the case of stem cells, the secretary of health and human services, with input from the director of the National Institutes of Health, is to create a set of guidelines to govern the funding of research on embryonic and non-embryonic stem cells. Experts within NIH and other scientific bodies have been working on such plans in anticipation of today’s announcement, and federal officials are expected within weeks to release a draft document that will be made available for public comment before being finalized.

Congress, meanwhile, is also moving apace to codify the essential elements of ethical embryonic stem cell research—something legislators did twice during the Bush administration, only to see the president veto the law both times. Legislation would help prevent future presidents from obstructing this important work.

Basic research in stem cell science promises to offer revolutionary new ways of treating diseases, but the process of getting these technologies out of the labs and into clinical trials will no doubt be gradual. Only recently, after more than a decade of basic research, did the Food and Drug Administration approve the first clinical trial for a stem-cell based therapy.

“The new U.S. policy will let more scientists get to work on the basic studies that will serve as the foundation for tomorrow’s new medical treatments,” Moreno said.

Obama’s memorandum on scientific integrity calls upon the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, in collaboration with other agencies including the Office of Management and Budget, to develop a set of recommendations for presidential action to assure honesty and openness in science policymaking. The recommendations are to include beefed-up protections for whistle blowers.

Read the latest from the Center for American Progress and Science Progress on stem cell research policy:

Report: A Life Sciences Crucible: Stem Cell Research and Innovation Done Responsibly and Ethically

Column: Eight Reasons to Applaud Action on Stem Cells

News: Stem Cell Science Takes an Ambitious Step Forward

Timeline: A Brief History of Stem Cell Research

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