- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 7, 2009

President Obama on Monday will overturn President Bush’s limits on federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, negotiating an ethical minefield to fulfill a campaign promise that some think could lead to cures for a variety of diseases.

The president will sign an executive order at the White House on Monday, an Obama spokesman confirmed to The Washington Times.

The Bush administration, citing moral objections to the destruction of embryonic human life, banned federal funding of the research for all but a few lines of embryonic stem cells, those already in existence in 2001, about which President Bush said at the time, “The life-and-death decision has already been made.”

“It’s very exciting. It means many new opportunities for embryonic stem-cell science,” said George Q. Daley, a leading researcher on the subject at Harvard Medical School.

“I’m looking forward to the [National Institutes of Health] being able to make really credible decisions based on science and not on politics,” Mr. Daley said.

But opponents of embryonic research said the president is, in fact, defying scientific evidence with his decision to promote research that requires eggs to be fertilized and human embryos created in order to harvest the stem-cell lines.

David Prentice, a former Indiana University researcher now at the Family Research Council, said, “All of the scientific success is taking place with adult stem cells for patients, and the IPS cells for basic research.”

IPS, which stands for induced pluripotent stem cells, is the technique that has produced a wave of excitement within the scientific community over the past few years, as researchers have discovered the ability to manipulate adult stem cells to make them similar to embryonic stem cells.

“They look and act exactly like embryonic stem cells, but they’re cheaper and easier to make. You can make them from any patient to treat the disease, and you bypass the ethical problems,” Mr. Prentice said. “When we talk about science, the results have bypassed using human embryos for these experiments. It really is the poorest and obsolete science.”

Mr. Daley acknowledged that “the IPS cells are very exciting,” but said they are “the newest kid on the block. We don’t know all we need to know. What we need is all tools available to do disease research.”

Embryonic stem cells are derived from human embryos, in a process that destroys the embryos, while adult stem cells are taken from tissue samples of living people.

Opponents of embryonic research say the fertilized embryo is human life that requires only implantation in a womb to develop into a fully grown person.

But advocates of working with embryos say that their natural pluripotency, or ability to change into different forms of human tissue, gives researchers the potential to cure a host of diseases.

So far, no such scenario has occurred, while research on IPS cells has produced several promising breakthroughs, the most recent coming Thursday in relation to Parkinson’s disease, at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.

The IPS cells were first produced from human cells in 2007.

Mr. Bush issued his funding policy in 2001 after convening a committee to study the topic and issue recommendations. His decision, coming one month before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, was one of the biggest of his presidency to that point.

The research itself had never been made illegal, and the Bush administration placed no restrictions on private or state funding of embryonic stem-cell research.

“Embryonic stem-cell research is at the leading edge of a series of moral hazards,” Mr. Bush said when announcing the decision in 2001, when he called the embryos “the seeds of the next generation.”

“This issue forces us to confront fundamental questions about the beginnings of life and the ends of science,” Mr. Bush said. “It lies at a difficult moral intersection, juxtaposing the need to protect life in all its phases with the prospect of saving and improving life in all its stages.”

While Mr. Bush restricted research to what he said amounted to 60 stem-cell lines, Mr. Daley said there turned out to be fewer than 20 in the U.S. He also said there are now about 800 lines in existence around the world.

“Most scientists don’t equate embryos as a cluster of a hundred cells in a petri dish with a person, and certainly not equal to the patients who we’re looking to serve in the long run by hopefully studying and curing disease,” he said.

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