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Stem cells beyond federal funding embargo

Obama sets stem-cell researchers free!

On March 9, President Obama revoked the limits on funding research with embryonic stem cells, telling a White House audience that U.S. scientists can now apply for funding to investigate many types of embryonic stem (ES) cells, not just the few varieties permitted under the 2001 policy imposed by former President Bush.

White dry ice gas spills from a canister as a young woman removes a crate of cells from storage
Just as President Obama's decision has removed U.S. embryonic stem cell research from the cooler, Jessica Antosiewicz removes human embryonic stem cells from liquid-nitrogen storage in the James Thomson lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Thomson isolated embryonic stem cells from a nonhuman primate in 1995, then did the same for human ES cells in 1998.

Although ES cells have not produced any cures to date, in January, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first human trial of embryonic stem cells for treating spinal cord injury.

As expected, Obama’s edict evoked enthusiasm. “It’s magic,” responded Alan Trounson, president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, a state body that is spending $3 billion on ES cells and other stem cells. “It’s been difficult to explain to people in this country, and all over the world, why the U.S. was not really part of the whole stem-cell revolution. Patient treatments have been set back as a result of this delay.”

“I would say we have now left the dark ages in stem cell research, and entered the Renaissance,” says transplant surgeon Jon Odorico of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who uses stem cells to explore treatments for diabetes. “Think about the analogy -- scientists struggled with church control. There are many parallels” with the recent experience on stem cells, he adds.

“We were thrilled to see the great potential for progress that this decision represents,” says Stephen Byer, an advocate for people with the fatal nerve disorder Lou Gehrig’s disease. Talking with others whose lives have been affected by diseases that may be treated with ES-cell research, Byer says, “I have personally seen a number of people literally in tears of joy, now that the president has done what so many of us have been awaiting for eight-plus years.”

In a statement, James Thomson, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of anatomy who first grew human embryonic stem cells in the lab almost 11 years ago, called the action “a welcome milestone for our field. The decision will help restore America as a leader in this field and is a clear path out of a policy thicket that has slowed the pace of discovery for eight years. It also removes a stigma that has discouraged many bright young people from embarking on careers in stem cell research.”

The spherical cell complex looks like earth from space if all landmasses were forested islands
Photo: CIRM
A colony of human embryonic stem cells (light blue) growing on support cells called fibroblasts, shown in dark blue. Click for larger version.

The king of the cells

Stem cells, by definition, are able to divide into other cell types, and some stem cells, including those derived from embryos, can form all cell types. Thomson’s 1998 discovery of human embryonic stem cells sparked hope for the emergence of cell therapy -- a replacement-parts strategy for curing paralysis and diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and diabetes.

The biggest single barrier to cell therapy was identifying the subtle chemical cues that cause a stem cell to differentiate into, say, a heart muscle cell as opposed to a nerve cell. Meanwhile, researchers learned to create stem cells carrying the genes for specific human diseases, and these cells quickly became critical lab tools for exploring the causes and mechanisms of disease and testing drug treatments.

 A wheelchair-bound man by a trail sign with an arrow that points up to White Mountain
People with spinal cord injuries hope embryonic stem cells can be the basis for treatment or a cure, but Bob Coomber is not waiting around. He was the first person to ascend 4,344 meter White Mountain in California by wheelchair.

Not quite unanimous joy

Because removing ES cells kills the embryo, people who believe that life begins at conception essentially equate ES cell research to murder, and this reasoning lay behind George W. Bush’s Aug. 9, 2001 decision to ban federal funding for any research on any embryonic stem cells not already in existence. The decision did allow federally-funded scientists to study 21 genetically distinct “lines” of stem cells, but if you wanted to work on a newer line -- one that could not, say, carry an unknown virus -- you had to build and maintain a separate lab and payroll. You could not use even an extension cord if it was bought with federal dollars.

Obama’s decision was unpopular in right-to-life circles. Cardinal Justin Rigali of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called Obama’s order, "a sad victory of politics over science and ethics." (Ironically, that is the identical charge that ES cell advocates leveled against the Bush ban.)

In any event, Bush’s ES cell decision stigmatized medical researchers who were used to playing hero, not villain. Suddenly, people working to cure diseases like diabetes and Parkinson’s were tarred as collaborators in a “culture of death.”

A computer model of a set of four buildings with roof gardens built alongside a forest road.
Photo: CIRM
The Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of California at San Francisco is one beneficiary of $3 billion in bonds from the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine. The center got $35 million from CIRM and $100 million from donors and the university.

Making the moral choice

In fact, the embryonic stem cells being studied had come from “surplus” embryos that fertility clinics no longer wanted because the parents had as many children as they wanted. Researchers wanted to know, was it better to discard these embryos than to use them to try to heal grave diseases? “Rather than see an embryo discarded as medical waste, it can serve a higher purpose,” says Bernard Siegel, director of the Genetics Policy Institute. “It has no feeling, it’s a microscopic ball of cells that if left alone would die in a matter of days. If scientific research can take advantage of the embryo, I think there is a moral imperative to move forward with the research.”

Polls say many Americans agree. In February Gallup found that 38 percent of Americans support easing the Bush restrictions, while another 14 percent oppose any restrictions on ES cell research. Interestingly, in a June, 2008 poll that specified that the source embryos otherwise would be discarded, 73 percent of Americans support ES cell research.

So what was lost during eight years of restrictions on ES cells?


Terry Devitt, editor; Nathan Hebert, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

©2023, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.