Saturday, March 7, 2009

Obama Stem Cell Shift Will Speed Hunt for Cures, Scientists Say

President Barack Obama’s expected reversal of an 8-year-old restriction on U.S. funding for embryonic stem cell research has excited scientists and health advocates who say the action will accelerate the search for cures to major illness.

Obama plans to lift the funding ban, imposed by former President George W. Bush, in a March 9 signing ceremony, said two government officials, who spoke yesterday on condition of anonymity. Bush objected to the use of the tissue because the process caused the destruction of human embryos.

The change will free federally backed scientists to work with hundreds of newer cell colonies that have been off-limits under Bush’s order, including some that carry genetic mutations causing diseases such as juvenile diabetes and Huntington’s. If scientists can study these cells using U.S. government funding, it will speed research into those conditions, said Larry Soler, executive vice president of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

The expected shift will “update the current policy, which has been frozen in place since 2001 and allow broad use of new technologies discovered over the last eight years,” Soler said yesterday in a telephone interview. “For 30 million Americans with some form of diabetes, stem cell research offers a possibility to develop new treatments.”

Repairing Damaged Organs

Stem cells derived from days-old human embryos have the potential to form any of the body’s 200 or so cell types and to repair or replace damaged tissue or organs. Those that contain mutations may reveal how illness develops and identify targets for prevention or treatment.

Opponents of the research consider embryos to be human life and research that destroys them to be immoral. They say stem cells from adult tissue and umbilical cord blood are available without harming embryos and already in clinical use, while treatments from embryonic cells are years off.

Bush allowed government support only for cell colonies made from embryos before August 9, 2001. Just 21 such colonies are available today to researchers, while hundreds of newer lines can be used only by researchers funded from private sources.

House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio said research advances allowing adult skin cells to be turned into so-called pluripotent stem cells with powers similar to those from embryos makes federal support for embryonic cells unnecessary.

‘Precious Human Life’

“Republicans enthusiastically support adult, cord blood, and pluripotent stem cell research that have shown so much promise in recent years,” he said in an e-mailed statement. “The question is whether taxpayer dollars should be used to subsidize the destruction of precious human life. Millions of Americans strongly oppose that, and rightfully so.”

Obama’s policy will encourage investment into stem cell companies, said Michael West, the founder and former chief executive of Geron Corp., the first company to use human embryonic stem cells after they were discovered in 1996.

“As the entrepreneur who was out there trying to move the industry forward, the Bush policy massively impacted the willingness of investors to put up money,” West said in a telephone interview yesterday. “Many of us hope this will spawn the new era of regenerative medicine we’ve been waiting for all these years. What a sigh of relief.”

West’s current company, Biotime Inc., based in Berkeley, California, is selling 88 cell lines carrying genetic diseases, including muscular dystrophy, Huntington’s disease and multiple sclerosis. The cells were created by a Chicago fertility center from embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization treatments.

Campaign Pledge

As a presidential candidate, Obama had pledged to overturn the Bush policy and many observers had expected him to act sooner.

“Indeed, that Obama has waited seven weeks into his presidency to sign this executive order is the only surprising aspect, said Rogan Kersh, associate dean of New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service, in an e-mail yesterday. “Amid so much policy turmoil, reversing the Bush ban won’t be as big a story as it normally might, but will arouse opposition from religious groups and other social conservatives opposed to this research on embryos.”

Reports that Obama would reverse the ban began circulating after the close of regular trading yesterday, with the first headlines coming from the Washington Post and ABC News.

The news sent shares of the stem cell companies higher. Geron, based in Menlo Park, California, gained $1.51, or 39 percent, to $5.38 and StemCells Inc. of Palo Alto, California, rose 91 cents, or 66 percent, to $1.38 in extended trading on the Nasdaq Stock Market.

The timing of Obama’s announcement couldn’t be better, said Arnold Kriegstein, director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. It comes just days after the National Institutes of Health began requesting proposals for research projects using some of the $10 billion it was awarded from the from the economic stimulus package passed by Congress, Kriegstein said.