WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Stem cell advocates and researchers are eagerly awaiting the moment next year when president-elect Barack Obama rescinds a directive that limits federal funding of human embryonic stem-cell research.
The directive was one of President George W. Bush’s first major acts after taking office in 2001, and Obama plans to reverse it quickly, according to the co-chair of his transition team, John Podesta.
The result should be a surge of funding and interest, said David Greenwood of Geron Corp., whose shares were up more than 10 percent on Monday along with those of other companies with a heavy interest in the field.
“We have been waiting for the day,” Greenwood said in a telephone interview.
“Hallelujah -- at last!” agreed Dr. Robert Lanza of Massachusetts-based Advanced Cell Technology, which has been struggling to find funding.
While private companies have been doing as much as they can, the weight of the government’s National Institutes of Health is vital to get the process going, the experts agreed.
“We at this company have spent probably $170 million on embryonic stem cells,” Greenwood said.
“I think our $170 million probably is equal to what all other stem cell companies have managed to raise, and that’s not a large sum to do industrial science, compared to the $30 billion a year the NIH has.”
Advocates say stem cell-related research could lead to a whole new field of regenerative medicine, in which patients could get transplants and treatments for Parkinson‘s, juvenile diabetes, cancer, injuries and a range of other ills.
Bush has been at odds with Congress, researchers and advocates for years over the issue. Stem cells are the body’s master cells. Most sources, from blood and tissue, are not controversial.
But days-old embryos called blastocysts are made up of so-called pluripotent stem cells, which can give rise to all the other cells and tissues in the body. Human embryonic stem cells were only discovered in 1998.
The 1995 Dickey Amendment, passed by Congress every year since, forbids the use of federal funds for the destruction or endangerment of embryos for research.
In 2001, Bush extended this restriction via executive order to research that uses stem cells from human embryos -- with the small exception of a few batches, called lines, of stem cells that had already been created.
Congress has tried to overrule the decision with broad stem cell legislation, but Bush has vetoed every effort.
“We have been operating for the last decade with one hand tied behind our back,” Lanza said by e-mail.
Amy Comstock Rick, chief executive officer of the Parkinson’s Action Network, does not see the Dickey Amendment as a major stumbling point.
“There are an awful lot of stem cell lines out there already,” she said in a telephone interview. She thinks an executive order by Obama superseding Bush’s executive order will do plenty for the field.
“What it’ll do is open up a large pool of funding that hasn’t been eligible for stem cell research,” she said.
Kenneth Aldrich, chairman and CEO of International Stem Cell Corporation, said the restrictions have hurt academic researchers who come up with the ideas that are then moved to the clinic by private companies.
Many have built separate facilities for working with human embryonic stem cells, for fear of losing all their federal funding. “They have been forced to spend a lot of money on bricks and mortar,” Aldrich said.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino defended Bush’s stand on Monday.
“Since that decision, scientists from all over the world, and especially here in our country, have shown their innovation and their abilities to do embryonic stem cell research and make huge leaps in achievement without destroying embryos,” she said.
Editing by Philip Barbara