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Obama to lift ban on ES cell research

9 March 2009
Appeared in BioNews 498

US President Barack Obama has announced plans to lift the ban on the federal funding of embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research, put in place by his predecessor George W Bush more than eight years ago. Obama is expected to sign an executive order legalising the use of federal funding for research into ES cell lines today, with legislative backing from Congress and new guidelines for research from the National Institutes for Health (NIH) expected to follow in due course.

The ban was put in place by the Bush administration in 1996 in response to concerns from pro-life groups who believe ES cell research is amoral because it involves the destruction of early embryos. On 9 August 2001, ex-President Bush eased restrictions slightly by allowing researchers to use the 21 ES cell lines already in existence on that date, although in many cases these were not safe to use in human trials and prevented researchers from creating new lines to model a wide range of human diseases.

The move to lift the ban was welcomed by stem cell researchers and will inevitably allow the field of stem cell research to progress more rapidly through allowing the creation of new cell lines for research and endorsing collaborations between publicly and privately funded researchers. Speaking to the Science Media Centre (SMC), Sir Paul Nurse, President of Rockefeller University, New York, said: 'Scientific research is a worldwide endeavour and it is good news for science and medicine if President Obama allows US Federal support for research into more human embryonic stem cell lines.'

While two earlier attempts to have the ban lifted were passed through Congress and the Senate, they were vetoed by Bush. It is anticipated that bills currently passing through Congress will be signed into law by Obama, making it more difficult for future presidents to negate the decision.

Opponents to ES cell research, who reject the claim that the destruction of embryos should be allowed if there is a chance it might lead to new treatments for otherwise incurable diseases, are concerned that the move will divert funds from less ethically problematic areas of stem cell research, such as with adult and induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which do not involved the destruction of embryos. However, many scientists stress that it is necessary for research to continue into all types of stem cells until it becomes clear the extent to which they share the same properties.

At its inception the US ban on stem cell research triggered many US scientists to leave for Britain and other countries, where laws on stem cells are more liberal. There is some concern that a reversal of the ban will lead to a mass exodus of scientists back to the US to take advantage of the favourable financial and regulatory environment there.

'President Bush's restriction of research support to only a few cell lines derived before 2001 made no sense scientifically or ethically and had meant that US researchers had to turn to philanthropic sources of funds rather than to Federal funds. Biomedical research is strong in the UK with support coming from the Government through the MRC and the BBSRC and also from charitable sources such as the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK, so I would not expect there to be a significant brain drain from the UK with the lifting of these restrictions,' Nurse told the SMC.

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