WASHINGTON — Fulfilling a key campaign promise to upend a signature policy of the Bush administration, President Obama is poised to lift restrictions on using taxpayer dollars for research that many scientists believe holds the key to treating some of mankind's most debilitating afflictions.
Lobbyists for advocacy and research groups, as well as congressional staffers, said they expect Obama to sign an executive order Monday at the White House that would allow researchers to apply for National Institutes of Health grants for embryonic stem cell research.
"We're certainly hearing a lot of talk in our community, so I have every expectation that is the case," said Amy Comstock Rick, CEO of the Parkinson's Action Network and president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, which was formed to reverse President George W. Bush's restrictions.
Under the restrictions that Bush implemented in August 2001, taxpayer money can be used to pay for research on only a small number of existing embryonic stem cell lines.
Many scientific experts say they believe stem cells, the building blocks of life, can be manipulated to replace damaged tissue throughout the body. Embryonic stem cells are believed to hold the most promise. Scientists hope to harness them so they can create replacement tissues to treat a variety of diseases — such as new insulin-producing cells for diabetics, cells that could help those with Parkinson's disease or maybe even Alzheimer's, or new nerve connections to restore movement after spinal injury.
"I feel vindicated after eight years of struggle, and I know it's going to energize my research team," said Dr. George Daley of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and Children's Hospital of Boston, a leading stem cell researcher.
But harvesting stem cells has created controversy because the embryo is destroyed in a process many people equate to abortion.
Bush restricted research to stem cell lines that were created before Aug. 9, 2001. But scientists argued these lines were of poorer quality, limiting their research value.
Congress twice passed bills to permit funding of stem cell research using unused embryos at in vitro fertilization clinics, but Bush vetoed them. During the presidential campaign, then-Sen. Obama promised to reverse the ban, and advocates for the research have been wondering what's taking so long.
"America's biomedical research enterprise experienced steady decline over the past eight years, with shrinking budgets and policies that elevated ideology over science. This slowed the pace of discovery and the search for cures," said Sean Morrison, director of the University of Michigan's Center for Stem Cell Biology.
Critics denounced the expected move.
"Taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for experiments that require the destruction of human life," said Tony Perkins of the conservative Family Research Council. "President Obama's policy change is especially troubling given the significant adult stem cell advances that are being used to treat patients now without harming or destroying human embryos."
The executive order would bring one immediate change: As of Monday, scientists who have had to meticulously keep separate their federally funded research and their privately funded stem cell work — from buying separate microscopes to even setting up labs in different buildings — would not have that expensive hurdle anymore.
Scientists may soon be able to apply for grants from the National Institutes of Health. The NIH has begun writing guidelines that, among other things, are expected to demand that the cells being used were derived with proper informed consent from the woman or couple who donated the original embryo.
Congress is expected to consider bipartisan legislation this year to guarantee NIH funding for the research.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.