Sunday, December 28, 2008

Scientists Eager for Stem Cell Policy Change

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by: Jeffrey Young, The Hill

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Scientists are looking forward to stem cell policy changes. (Photo: Munshi Ahmed / The New York Times)

Although President-elect Obama's pledge to change federal policy on stem cell research is not likely to lead to new cures by the end of his first year - or even first term - the scientific community is eager to get moving.

Embryonic stem cell research is one area in which the change that Obama has promised on the campaign trail will provoke an immediate effect.

Once he has acted to ease the restriction on federal funding, researchers across the United States will be free to request funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and to collaborate with colleagues conducting experiments with private or state-government money and those working abroad.

"Just with the stroke of a pen, the new president could open up new avenues of research," said Rep. Diana DeGette (Colo.), the lead Democratic sponsor of legislation that would broaden funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Obama has vowed to lift restrictions put in place by President Bush and to enact legislation the current president twice vetoed.

"He would really be signaling that we really are moving in a new direction," DeGette said.

"The research facilities in America ... are by and large prepared to move forward with the research. I don't think there'd be much delay," said Rep. Mike Castle (Del.), the lead Republican sponsor of the bill.

During the campaign, Obama pledged to take swift action.

"As president, I will lift the current administration's ban on federal funding of research on embryonic stem cell lines created after August 9, 2001 through executive order, and I will ensure that all research on stem cells is conducted ethically and with rigorous oversight," Obama wrote to the website ScienceDebate2008.com.

Lawmakers supporting embryonic stem cell research plan to reintroduce legislation putting a new policy into law.

Congress passed similar legislation in 2006 and 2007 but it died twice under Bush's veto pen. Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) are the lead sponsors of the Senate version of the bill.

On Monday, DeGette and Castle led a bipartisan group of 11 House members who delivered a letter to Obama requesting an executive order "early next year."

"Scientists, not politicians, should decide which techniques have the best potential for progress in developing therapies," the legislators wrote Friday.

Researchers believe embryonic stem cells can be made to replicate practically any human cell or tissue, thus leading to treatments for countless ailments.

While not disputing the potential of embryonic stem cells, Bush objects to the fact that embryos are destroyed in the process of extracting the cells. To many who believe embryos are human life, this practice is tantamount to murder.

Moreover, those with moral and ethical objections also note that scientists have made progress on reprogramming adult stem cells into the "pluripotent" cells coveted by researchers.

Advocates for the research counter that embryonic stem cells are derived, with the donors' permission, from unused frozen embryos in storage at fertility clinics. Most scientists view the emerging research on reprogramming adult cells as promising but still believe the embryonic cells have more potential.

Researchers are eager for Obama to act.

"Lifting the restrictions will provide real encouragement to the people in the field and will eliminate a real drag on the field," said B.D. Colen, the senior communications officer for university science at Harvard, home to the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

"It could change things pretty much right away," said Terry Devitt, the director of research communications for the University of Wisconsin, which runs the U.W. Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center.

None of these advocates predicted that Congress would necessarily earmark new money for embryonic stem cell research, however.

"I think that question is premature," DeGette said.

The NIH, meanwhile, will have to weigh new spending in this area against its priorities across the life sciences.

Whether Congress and the Obama administration devote additional resources to the area, a laxer policy will have immediate benefits to stem cell researchers.

Scientists already receiving funding for work allowable under the Bush policy could add new stem cell lines to their projects. In addition, institutions that set up separate lab facilities to research non-federally approved cells can consolidate their efforts. They also will be able to work with researchers who have moved ahead with alternate funding since 2001.

Though optimistic about the effects of a new federal policy, research institutes caution that the fruits of this research will take time and that cures are not around the corner.

"There's still a lot of basic science to be done.... The [Bush] policy has set research back five to six to seven years in this country," Devitt said.

It could be six months to a year after Obama announces his policy before the federal government even cuts any checks.

"I would not expect that people have applications ready to go that they're planning to FedEx to Bethesda Jan. 21," said Sean Tipton, the director of public affairs at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. "I don't think anybody expects money out the door real quickly."

The NIH is headquartered in Bethesda, Md.

After Obama issues his order, the NIH and other agencies will have to draft and implement the policy. Then, researchers will have to submit requests for grants and wait for an answer, which can take months.

"It's a long, drawn-out process," Devitt said. "We'll have to compete with Harvard and Stanford and the University of California [at] San Francisco," he said of three of the leading centers of stem cell research.

Merely subjecting grant applications for embryonic stem cell research to the standard competition for NIH dollars has always been the scientific community's goal, Tipton said. "I think that most of the organizations who were involved in the stem cell fight are pretty committed to the scientific review process in place," he stated.

"All we've been asking for is: 'Treat embryonic stem cell research like everything else,'" Tipton said.

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