President Obama will sign an executive order Monday lifting limits on human embryonic stem cell research and will direct federal agencies to “restore scientific integrity” to decision-making, White House aides said Sunday.
Obama’s order follows years of wrangling over stem cells and scientific decision-making in the Bush administration.
“Public policy must be guided by sound scientific advice,” said Nobel Prize winner Harold Varmus, co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, discussing the order and memorandum Sunday.
Melody Barnes of Obama’s Domestic Policy Council added that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy will set standards for federal science advisers, insulating them from political interference.
The executive order will reverse President George W. Bush’s 2001 decision to withhold federal support of research on newly collected colonies of embryonic stem cells, the master cells from which all tissues are formed. Bush, who opposed the destruction of embryos necessary to harvest the cells, limited research funding to 21 stem cell colonies, or lines, already in existence.
That number will jump to hundreds of lines, many specifically created for research into diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson’s. The National Institutes of Health will have 120 days to set new research guidelines, Varmus said, following previous National Academy of Sciences recommendations requiring that the cells come from embryos donated by patients with informed consent and with limited compensation.
Many in the scientific community welcomed news of the move. “What really is important is that ideology will not drive science,” said bioethicist Jonathan Moreno of the University of Pennsylvania, who will be at the White House ceremony Monday alongside legislators and disease organization advocates.
“Hallelujah, this marks the end of a long and repressive chapter in scientific history,” said stem cell researcher Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass. “It’s the stem-cell Emancipation Proclamation.”
But UCLA’s Russell Korobkin, author of Stem Cell Century: Law and Policy for a Breakthrough Technology, said this reversal is less important than it would have been two years ago. In that time, scientists have learned how to make “induced” cell lines from skin cells that may one day eliminate the need for embryos.
Restrictive state policies banning or limiting stem cell research are one hurdle scientists still face, said sociologist Jason Owen-Smith of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Even so, he said, lifting federal restrictions will allow already active researchers to switch their efforts to newer cell lines or to start work on cell lines from multiple sources, and “we should see some relatively quick advances.”
Stem cell research “pretty clearly has public support,” said science policy expert Aaron Levine of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. But, he added, “opponents will continue to be very vocal.”
Opponents were quick to respond. “We have been and remain opposed to destruction of human embryos to advance science,” said Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.
“We’re not afraid of the science, but we don’t view the president’s mandate as stepping into this controversial area and making taxpayers responsible for the loss of human life,” he said.