Ending an almost decade-long battle between the scientific community and the White House, President Barack Obama announced yesterday that he would lift federal restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, much to delight of University researchers and Michigan politicians alike.
The announcement reversed a 2007 executive order and 2001 presidential statement from then-President Bush that limited research opportunities and funding for scientists working with embryonic stem cells.
At the White House yesterday, Obama promised that the science policy put forth by his administration would not be “distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda” and would restore “scientific integrity to government decision-making.”
“Promoting science isn’t just about providing resources, it is also about protecting free and open inquiry,” Obama said.
For Sean Morrison, the director of the University’s Center for Stem Cell Biology, and other University researchers, yesterday symbolized the end of a nearly eight-year battle to get the federal ban overturned.
“This is a great day for America, and a great day for science, and a great day for the University of Michigan,” Morrison said.
He said Obama’s decision to repeal then-President Bush’s restrictions will have an enormous impact on science and medicine.
“He made the point that in his administration, there will be an open and honest discussion of the science underlining their decisions, and that science policy will be based on science and not based on ideology,” he said.
Congressman John D. Dingell (D – Dearborn), whose district includes part of Ann Arbor, wrote in a press release that Obama’s decision can only spur positive results, especially for the University community.
“Our scientists at the University of Michigan are on the cusp of remarkable breakthroughs in the area of stem cell research,” he wrote. “Much of this research has been done despite incredible restrictions at both the state and local levels hampering their work for many years.”
He said that with last November’s passage of Proposal 2, which loosened restrictions on embryonic stem cell research in the state, Michigan voters started a process that took the “handcuffs off” stem cell researchers.
“Today’s executive order will hopefully pave the way for additional federal resources to support the important work already being done in Michigan,” he said.
LSA senior Landon Krantz, president of the University’s chapter of the Student Society for Stem Cell Research, said he felt relieved after the announcement yesterday because it meant the group’s efforts to overturn the ban were worth it.
But, he added, the real work of discovering cures has just begun.
“It’s great that we’re finally here, but there’s a lot left to be done, and people should know that cures aren’t going to be here tomorrow,” Krantz said. “We’re eight years behind other countries in the world, but it’s finally time the United States can get on board with the rest of the world in finding cures with stem cell research.”
After hearing about yesterday’s announcement, Zachary Stangebye, vice president of the University’s chapter of Students for Life, wrote in an e-mail statement that the government shouldn’t “condone this kind of research, let alone fund it.”
“Whether the embryos will be adopted or even discarded is irrelevant; we must not kill them,” he wrote. “Our government was correct in refusing to fund such barbaric research, and the recent repeal of the ban is highly unethical.”
Stangebye also wrote that his organization is not “anti-science,” and supports what they consider to be “ethical practices of science and support research for cures that could save lives.”
He added: “But we must not pursue such serendipitous research at the cost of human lives.”
Obama’s announcement was given on the same day that the University officially declared the opening of the new A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute Consortium for Stem Cell Therapies — a facility for scientists to develop new stem cell lines.
Gary Smith, director of the Reproductive Sciences Program, it was “serendipitous” that Obama’s announcement and the consortium’s opening occurred on the same day.
He said that even if Obama would not have lifted the restrictions, stem cell researchers at the University were prepared to open the consortium.
“We already decided that we would move forward with this University-supported program, but in essence, the movement of the program and the generating of these new stem cells now at least can be available for others to utilize,” Smith said.
Obama’s decision gives scientists access to more than the 21 federally approved stem cell lines designated for research by George Bush.
One of the goals of the University’s consortium is to develop new embryonic stem cell lines for specific diseases.
“(We will) utilize those lines to investigate what are some of the causes, what are some of the consequences, what’s some of the biology of those embryonic stem cell lines and then hopefully, in the future, be able to utilize some of those lines to learn about therapies,” Smith said.
Morrison said the University will receive millions of dollars in private donations in addition to the federal funds given to the University as a result of the stimulus package and President Obama’s announcement. He added that with the new opportunities in the field, the University plans on hiring one or two more embryonic stem cell researchers.
Similar to Dingell, Morrison said the passage of Proposal 2 in Michigan was critical for the University to be able to participate in the exciting possibilities created by Obama’s announcement.
“President Obama, partly through the stimulus package, wants to invest millions of dollars in new embryonic stem cell research, and if we had not passed Proposal 2, we wouldn’t be able to participate with other states,” Morrison said. “But as a result of having passed Proposal 2, millions of dollars in new federal funding will come to the University of Michigan.”
One major criticism from opponents of Proposal 2 was that there would be no funds to support stem cell research even if the proposal passed.
Morrison said Obama’s announcement and the opening of the consortium proves opponents were wrong as the federal government and private donors are now investing millions of dollars for research at the University. This group includes Alfred A. Taubman, who will be making a substantial donation to support the work of the consortium.
— The Associated Press contributed to this story.