WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama lifted restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research on Monday, angering abortion opponents but cheering those who believe the study could produce treatments for many diseases.
“We will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research,” Obama said to vigorous applause at a White House gathering.
“We will also vigorously support scientists who pursue this research. And we will aim for America to lead the world in the discoveries it one day may yield.”
Shares of companies specializing in stem cell research burst upward on the news, with Geron Corp up by as much as much as 35 percent and StemCells Inc up 73 percent at one point. Other related company shares rose, too.
The decision was a clear repudiation of the approach taken by Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush. U.S. law limits the use of federal money to make human stem cells, but Bush tightened the restrictions even further to include work using such cells.
Bush’s decision prompted charges that he was basing his decision on politics and religion rather than science. Religious conservatives who supported Bush generally opposed embryonic stem cell research because it involves destruction of embryos, which they view as human life.
Obama rejected that view.
“When it comes to stem cell research, rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values,” he said.
“As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research — and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly.”
Aides said Obama would not dictate details about how stem cell research should be overseen but would give the National Institutes of Health 120 days to come up with guidelines.
“We will never undertake this research lightly,” Obama said. “We will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse.”
Some scientists accused Bush of sacrificing scientific research and subverting scientific findings to appease his conservative political and religious base, not only on stem cells but on climate change policy, energy and reproductive and end of life issues.
Obama also signed a presidential memorandum directing the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop a strategy for “restoring scientific integrity to government decision making.”
The NIH will take into consideration guidelines from the National Academy of Sciences and the International Society for Stem Cell Research, said Dr. Harold Varmus, a former NIH director who is also president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and an adviser to Obama.
Kansas Senator Sam Brownback issued a statement of dissent: “If an embryo is a life, and I believe strongly that it is life, then no government has the right to sanction their destruction for research purposes.”
He argued that other sources of stem cells that do not come from human embryos offer as much promise.
Stem cell experts agree that all types of stem cells should be developed, but it is not clear which offer the best route to a new type of therapy called regenerative medicine, in which it is hoped doctors can replace brain cells destroyed by Alzheimer’s disease, reverse genetic defects such as cystic fibrosis, and regrow severed spinal cords.
Editing by Maggie Fox and David Storey