The future of modern medicine took a new direction yesterday, as President Barack Obama signed an executive order, overturning a Bush-era policy on embryonic stem cell research.
Under President Bush, federal tax dollars were severely restricted from funding this type of research, placing him squarely in the camp of those who consider embryonic stem cells as sacrosanct as human life itself.
So, what does this change really mean? NPR science correspondent Joe Palca explains.
Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.
TONY COX, host:
From NPR News, this is News and Notes. I'm Tony Cox. The future of modern medicine took a new direction yesterday, as President Barack Obama signed an executive order, overturning a Bush-era policy on financing embryonic stem cell research.
(Soundbite of speech)
President BARACK OBAMA: At this moment, the full promise of stem cell research remains unknown and it should not be overstated. But scientists believe these tiny cells may have the potential to help us understand and possibly cure some of our most devastating diseases and conditions.
COX: Under President Bush, federal tax dollars were severely restricted for the funding of this research, placing him squarely in the camp of those who consider embryonic stem cells as sacrosanct as human life itself. So, what does this change really mean? With an overview of the stem cell story, I am joined now by NPR science correspondent Joe Palca. Joe, welcome.
JOE PALCA: Thank you.
COX: There are several layers to this story that I'd like to ask you to sort out for the listeners, but let me list them first, and then you can tackle them each one separately if you like. First, there's the matter of the funding, of course, and how this expansion of funding differs from that of President George W. Bush. Second, there's the issue of the stem cells themselves and the difference between embryonic stem cell research and adult cell research. And then, there's a question of what medical breakthroughs are possible given that embryonic stem cell research has been ongoing outside the U.S. with questionable results so far. I know, Joe, that's a lot, so let's begin with the issue of the funding.
PALCA: OK. Well, as you said, what President Obama has done is, he removed restrictions that were placed on embryonic stem cell research. Actually, the interesting thing is that President George W. Bush was the first president to let the federal government fund embryonic stem cell research, but he did so with these restrictions that said only stem cell lines that were created prior to August 9, 2001, which was the day he made his decision, would be eligible for funding. Now, President Obama has removed that restriction, but it will be several months actually before the National Institutes of Health, which is the agency that will give out the federal dollars, has gotten its guidelines together for what kinds of research will be funded. So their guidelines will look at issues about what kind of science should be funded and also what are the ethical standards that have to be put in place. Some people say that it's important that the donors of the embryos that were used to derive the stem cells be - have their informed consent and make sure they know what was happening with the embryos, even if they were considered to be excess of what they needed for reproduction, and then there's a question of whether people should be allowed to generate embryos specifically for the purpose of generating embryonic stem cells. In some cases, people have talked about this if they have a child with a debilitating disease and they want to make a specific embryonic stem cell line that will be genetically matched to their child, they could possibly do that. That's been ethically controversial and the NIH will have to decide whether to allow federal funding for stem cells that are derived from those kinds of embryos.
COX: What about the question of what medical breakthroughs are possible? There's been a great deal of discussion about Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, diabetes and others. What about that?
PALCA: Well, you know, this is the hardest question of all to answer because I think when people talk about it, certainly when politicians talk about it, they don't want to talk about, you know, some maybe far-off day when a better understanding of how human biology works will update all sorts of textbooks. What they want to do is talk about the day when they can tell their constituents, we spent your tax dollars and now we can treat Parkinson's disease, and your father or your aunt or your uncle can be cured. The trouble is that any self-respecting scientist will say, I can't do that. I mean, it's just not known, and the hope is there. These things have shown promise. And I have to remind you that there already is a kind of a stem cell therapy. It's not based on embryonic stem cells. This was one of your points you wanted to discuss, the difference between embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells, but there are a kind of stem cell in our bone marrow. They're called hematopoietic or blood stem cells and they're frequently used to treat patients with leukemia. It's called a bone marrow transplant. So, there's a medical expectation, at least, to think that stem cells might help in certain diseases and these embryonic stem cells represent a potentially inexhaustible supply of any kind of stem cell you want, blood or bone or brain or what have you, and the question will be learning how to use them and seeing if they'll work in sick patients.
COX: How have they worked outside of the United States? I know that in the UK and China and Russia, they've already embraced the idea of embryonic stem cell research.
PALCA: Well, they have - I think that it's - the research has been less controversial there, but I think I'm safe in saying that if there has been a major breakthrough cure, they've kept it very quiet. It's tough. This is not a problem that's going to be solved overnight or, you know, in a few years. These diseases are difficult. They're intractable, and finding ways to cure them are going to be difficult. Just because embryonic stem cells represents a new approach and a promising one, doesn't mean that that's going to turn into something that's going to be a cure overnight. And I think the British and the Chinese and the Russians will tell you that's the case. Now, there have been some reports of people offering these cells in Russia and in China and people have actually run over to get them, but people in this country at least think that those are premature and there are some horror stories, unfortunately, of people who've run over to get these treatments and not only haven't gotten well and have spent a lot of money but have gotten worse. So, you know, there's issues to consider before you say, oh, well, it's better over there.
COX: I have one other question for you, Joe.
COX: I appreciate this information. There are two orders really that the president signed, one, on the funding which we've just discussed. Another, though, that signals a shift in government policy towards scientific research overall. Is this a shot at the social conservatives who in the past were accused of halting such research?
PALCA: Well, I think it's - if you want to call it - it wasn't just social conservatives. It was also conservatives on issues such as climate change. I think the shot is that anybody who would choose to bury science below ideology - and this is a message that says in the Obama administration, science will be science. It won't be muzzled. It won't always be accepted, their advice, but it'll always be out in the open.
COX: Alright, Joe. Thank you very much.
PALCA: You're welcome.
COX: That was NPR science correspondent Joe Palca. He joined us from our NPR studios in Washington D.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.