Stem Cell Researchers Welcome Rule Changes After Obama Victory

Hopes are high in many health care camps following the election of Sen. Barack Obama as the country’s 44th president, but no sector is in a better position for rapid change than stem cell research.

Obama has pledged to overturn the Bush policy limiting federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research, and scientists at the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine are ready.

But they’re also realistic.

“I think it’s fantastic for the whole country, just a tremendous step forward,” said Alan Trounson, president of the relatively new institute in San Francisco.

“I’m sure regenerative medicine will benefit, but what I’m not sure of is whether things might transpire very quickly. There’s going to be a huge call on reserves with the country’s financial situation, and I think we have to be realistic about how much can happen anytime soon,” Trounson said.

Proponents Say Bush Policy Stalled Progress

The ban on federal funding for research on new lines of human embryonic stem cells began in August 2001 when Bush issued an executive order limiting government funding to the embryonic stem cell lines then in existence.  The order also prohibited any funding for development of new embryonic stem cell lines.

Proponents of stem cell research — which includes more than 60% of the American public, according to a couple of polls — say Bush’s policy has stalled promising work toward cures and treatments for many illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Social and religious conservatives oppose some aspects of stem cell development because it requires the destruction of an embryo.

Embryonic stem cells are early-stage cells with the ability to become any of the more than 220 cell types in the human body.  Ten years ago when researchers isolated the first stem cell lines from a human embryo, scientists predicted the new regenerative field of medicine would eventually result in the ability to replace organs, repair spinal and neurological injuries and cure diseases.

The Bush policy does not restrict research funding for stem cell lines created before 2001. However, only about 21 of those lines are available, and most of them were created in ways that limit their use in humans.

Congress passed bills in 2006 and 2007 to overturn the restrictions, but both were vetoed by Bush. Even if Obama reverses the order, some members of Congress still might pursue legislation to make the policy law rather than an executive order.

Plan To Double Research Budgets

Not only has Obama indicated that he plans to reverse Bush’s order, “he said he wanted to double the budget for major research institutes,” Trounson said.  “Of course under the present circumstances that may be difficult. The whole economy is in need of major help, so we have to be practical about our expectations,” he said.

For the past seven years, stem cell researchers have been working on two distinct tracks — government-funded and private.

Rescinding the ban could bring the two tracks together.

“Hopefully, we’ll begin to see more joint activity and that will stop some duplications,” Trounson said.

Funding restrictions have created two of almost everything for stem cell scientists: two sets of bureaucratic hurdles to apply for funding, two standards of accountability and in some universities and research facilities two sets of equipment — one for federally funded research and another for all other types of research.

After Bush’s policy took effect, three states — California, New York and New Jersey — earmarked billions for stem cell research, but federal funding remained out of reach for many institutions.

Lifting the federal ban also might help the United States catch up with the rest of the world in stem cell research. Some scientists contend federal restrictions over the past seven years have stalled progress in this country by as much as a decade.

China, with less regulation and no limits on research spending, is considered one of the world’s hot spots in stem cell research. Chinese doctors are using stem cell injections to treat spinal injuries, Parkinson’s disease and other conditions.

Leadership Role

The California Institute of Regenerative Medicine — established with the 2004 passage of Proposition 71, the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Act — is the largest source of funding for human embryonic stem cell research in the world. The ballot measure provided $3 billion in funding for stem cell research at California universities and research institutions.

So far, the institute has handed out more than 200 grants totaling more than $614 million.

No matter what happens with federal research funds, Trounson said he and the institute’s board are confident “we will retain a leadership position.”

“We’re connected now to many other countries all over the world with our research and our grants programs,” Trounson said.

Last month, CIRM and the United Kingdom’s Medical Research Council announced an international collaboration on stem cell research. In the summer, CIRM announced similar agreements with the Cancer Stem Cell Consortium of Canada and the State of Victoria in Australia.

Getting Ready for Change

While the stem cell research community waits for the federal funding restriction to be lifted, “there are certainly things we can be doing to get ready,” Trounson said. He said synchronizing plans with NIH is high on the list.

“One of the first things we’ll do is have a dialogue with the new director of the NIH when the new director is appointed,” Trounson said. “It doesn’t make too much sense to talk to someone who’s keeping the chair warm for a little while. When someone is appointed, that’s the time to have a dialogue.”

Trounson said CIRM has received “good support from NIH,” and expects that to continue. “We’ve also had good support from cancer groups and other groups as well.”

The 3-year-old institute is “moving ahead at a very rapid pace and we expect that to continue and maybe even accelerate when Obama follows through on his plans,” Trounson said.

“It’s going to take a year or two at least, probably more like three to five years, for any real substantive changes to be felt, but overall, we’re very excited.”

“I just think it’s a pretty good time for medicine and research right now,” Trounson said.

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