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Congress Out Of Sync With Obama On Stem Cell Policy?
Thursday, January 22, 2009 - Stem Cell Research News
 Nancy Pelosi & Barack Obama

Pelosi Expects Executive Order, But Obama Seems To Prefer Legislative Solution

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a recent interview that she expects Pres. Barack Obama to issue an executive order soon after his inauguration reversing Pres. George W. Bush’s restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research.

            But then President-elect Obama on January 16 suggested to CNN he may leave the heavy lifting on changing embryonic stem cell research policy to Congress, making the issuance of an executive order anything but certain at this time.

            Lifting the Bush administration restrictions would not only channel more money to stem cell work, but also lead to increased availability of human embryonic stem cell lines for study, and eliminate a complex bureaucracy that has arisen to enforce the Bush provision, according to observers.

            “Science is a gift from God to all of us,” U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in an interview with Stanford University representatives. “Scientists have been given an almost biblical power to cure through advances in embryonic stem cell research. A repeal of the ban is critical so that we may take advantage of the opportunity to save lives, find cures and give hope to those suffering. It is an opportunity that we cannot miss.”

            Although representatives of Obama’s transition team have repeatedly declined to comment on his plans, the President-elect himself on Jan. 16 signaled that he might not use his executive authority to reverse Bush-era limits on stem cell research, and instead might wait for Congress to change the policy.

            “Well, if we can do something legislative, then I usually prefer a legislative process because those are the people’s representatives,” Obama said in a CNN interview. “And I think that on embryonic stem cell research, the fact that you have bipartisan support around that issue, the fact that you have Republicans like Orrin Hatch (Utah) who are fierce opponents of abortion and yet recognize that there is a moral and ethical mechanism to ensure that people with Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s can actually find potentially some hope out there, you know, I think that sends a powerful message.

            “So we’re still examining what things we’ll do through executive order,” Obama said. “But I like the idea of the American people’s representatives expressing their views on an issue like this.”

            With or without an Obama executive order, Pelosi expects Congress will work to pass legislation that would enhance support for stem cell research and ensure that future presidents couldn’t unilaterally change the policy without congressional approval.

            “It is one of our top priorities,” Pelosi said.

            Legislation removing the ban has been passed twice during the last few years, and Bush vetoed it both times.

            Researchers cautioned that in the current economic climate, no one should be expecting a windfall of new grants.

            Yet even a modest increase would help scientists, in both spirit and substance.

             “Lifting the ban on the use of federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research will end a sorry chapter in federal research policies and usher in a new era in this promising field of medicine,” said Philip Pizzo, MD, dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine and a member of the board overseeing California’s stem cell agency. “It would provide scientists with much-needed resources to speed discoveries and devise new treatments for some of the most vexing diseases and severe injuries.”

            A lifting of the ban would make research on previously unapproved human embryonic stem cell lines much less logistically challenging.

            It could also increase the availability of these stem cells for research.

            When Bush barred the use of federal funds to finance the creation of or research on any new cell lines – he considers it immoral to destroy embryos for research purposes – he claimed that more than 60 previously established human embryonic stem cell lines already existed for research purposes.

            Unfortunately, nearly all of these lines were grown in an environment that likely makes them unsafe for use in humans.

            Because of other complications, only 21 eligible cell lines remain available today for research worldwide, according to the National Institutes of Health.

            It can be extremely difficult to grow some of these lines in laboratories, and scientists complain about the lack of genetic diversity and the prevalence of genetic abnormalities in this limited pool.

            Even with an executive order from Obama and legislation from Congress ending the ban on funding for research (such as the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act), the government would still be prohibited from funding the creation of new lines.

            The Dickey-Wicker amendment, first passed in 1995, prohibits the use of federal funds for the creation of human embryos for research purposes or the destruction or injury of human embryos.

            A repeal of the amendment is not absolutely necessary because it neither prohibits the derivation of new lines with private money nor bars federal funding for research on these lines.

            But many researchers feel the federal government shouldn’t impose moral or ethical restrictions on the advancement of science.

            “I believe that, in the big picture, the introduction of political, religious and moral ideologies to restrict medical and scientific research is the most dangerous part of Bush’s policy,” said Irving Weissman, MD, director of Stanford’s Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. “The most important action the Obama administration can take is to erase ideology from the oversight and funding of all aspects of stem cell research and medicine.”

            “Personally, I believe it would be wise to repeal the Dickey-Wicker amendment in order to remove the barriers for America’s scientists to pursue the science they believe has the most promise to cure,” Pelosi said. “However, the passage of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act to allow for increased federal funding of stem cell research is a higher priority, and repeal of Dickey-Wicker will be considerably more difficult.”

            Robert Klein, chairman of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine’s governing body.said it’s possible that existing NIH funds may be reallocated to more strongly favor human embryonic stem cell research over other types of endeavors.

            Yet federal money is unlikely to supplant what CIRM is doing.

            “On a real dollar level,” Klein said, “any additional funding will not even come close to what is needed. It’s not even in the same ballpark. Furthermore, the type of funding is important. The NIH does not typically fund the early-phase human trials that are so important to driving therapy forward.”

            CIRM’s new loan program for biotechnology companies, for instance, is meant to provide a revolving source of support for institutions testing the safety and efficacy of possible human embryonic stem-cell-based therapies. Those sorts of ventures may not qualify for federal funding even if the ban is lifted.

            Contact: Rep. Nancy Pelosi,

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