U.S. stem cell announcement only a first step

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Researchers and advocates have been invited to a White house ceremony on Monday at which President Barack Obama is expected to lift eight years of restrictions on embryonic stem cell research -- but it will be months before the research field can take off, experts say.

The National Institutes of Health will have to write detailed guidelines on when and how federal dollars can be spent on research involving human embryos, and may be asked to provide a larger ethical framework on their use.

And laws are still on the books that limit the use of federal money to actually make the powerful stem cells, because they must be taken from human embryos. So federal research money can be used only to work with cells that were made using other sources of funds.

Nonetheless, researchers are delighted.

“Hallelujah! This marks the end of a long and repressive chapter in scientific history. It’s the stem-cell ‘emancipation proclamation’,” said Dr. Robert Lanza of Massachusetts-based Advanced Cell Technology, a stem cell company.

“I really hope this is the end of this political football game,” agreed Michael West, who once headed ACT and Geron Inc and who now is chief executive officer of California-based biotech BioTime.

Stem cells are primitive, long-living cells that are the source of all other cells in the body. When taken from days-old embryos they are virtually immortal, and can give rise to all the other cells and tissues in the body.

Supporters say they can transform medicine and have been working to use them to repair severed spinal cords, regenerate the brain cells lost in Parkinson’s and restore the tissue destroyed by juvenile diabetes.


But federal funding is the mainstay of medical research in the United States, especially for early-stage, experimental work. And soon after he took office in 2001, then-President George W. Bush restricted the use of federal money to work with human embryonic stem cells.

A few institutes, including at Harvard and Stanford universities, set up fully separate operations so their researchers could legally work with embryonic stem cells and also receive federal funding for their other work.

But most researchers chafed under the restrictions as they found the few batches of legally available stem cells could not fill their needs.

Dr. Douglas Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, noted that the process of getting federal funding itself is time-consuming but said his group will seek the cash alongside its other sources of money.

“The removal of this barrier that has stood in our way for eight years will open important new areas of research, and help in moving the field forward more rapidly,” Melton said.

Although support for federal funding of human stem cell research crosses political and philosophical boundaries, opponents remain.

“President Obama remains obsessed with killing human embryos for experimentation at taxpayer expense,” Congressman Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican who helps chair the House Pro-Life Caucus, said in a statement.

“Taxpayer dollars should not aid the destruction of innocent human life,” said House of Representatives Republican Leader John Boehner, an Ohio Republican.

Editing by Anthony Boadle