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Obama's stem cell order unties the hands of researchers and raises hopes for cures

Obama signs the order flanked by research advocates, Cabinet members and members of Congress including Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., who has been paralyzed since he was 16 and hailed the move.

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Obama signs the order flanked by research advocates, Cabinet members and members of Congress including Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., who has been paralyzed since he was 16 and hailed the move.

WASHINGTON — At the University of Minnesota, administrators no longer will have to keep track of the purple ice buckets.

At the Diabetes Research Institute at the University of Miami, the director plans to open a secure lab on the fourth floor that he calls "the island unto itself," and "put more minds on" the job of turning embryonic stem cells into insulin-producing pancreatic cells.

And at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, scientists working with stem cells carrying the gene for sickle cell anemia can now study how they react to thousands of chemical compounds using a federally funded, million-dollar machine that was off-limits before.

Much of the buzz over the executive order President Obama signed Monday that lifted President George W. Bush's funding restrictions for human embryonic stem cell studies has focused on the millions of federal dollars now available for the research, money that might jump-start the science and put the United States back on track to become a world leader in the field.

But the first National Institutes of Health grants are months away, if not a year. The immediate effect of Monday's order is that with a stroke of his pen, Obama vastly increased the number of scientists and research centers likely to tackle the most promising avenue for discovering treatments for a host of daunting afflictions.

"What this has done is lifted barriers for breakthroughs to happen," said Chi V. Dang, vice dean of research at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, which used an anonymous gift of $28 million to set up a separate lab for human embryonic stem cell research to comply with Bush's rules.

"The only way that breakthroughs can be made is to allow for free cross-pollination of ideas, of instrumentation, of cell lines," he said. "When you put up arbitrary barriers, such as you can't use certain cell lines funded by federal government, you restrict your ability to cross-pollinate."

Obama's order requires the NIH to produce guidelines for funding human embryonic stem cell research within 120 days. As under Bush, the change will not permit tax dollars to pay to harvest the cells, which is prevented by an appropriations clause Congress passes annually.

But officials will have to decide whether to endorse studies on cells obtained from contentious sources, such as embryos created specifically for research or by means of cloning techniques.

President Obama "left it wide open," said Thomas Murray, director of the Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank. "Now we are going to have to face a host of morally complicated, politically charged questions."

Embryonic stem cells are the building blocks of human life. Many researchers believe they can be manipulated to replace diseased or damaged cells throughout the body, one day leading to treatments for Alzheimer's, diabetes, Parkinson's and spinal cord injury.

But harvesting the cells kills the embryos, and critics equate it to abortion. Seeking to balance science and his ethics, Bush issued an executive order on Aug. 9, 2001, letting U.S. funds be used only on existing stem cell lines. But the 20 or so lines that met the criteria proved to be of limited use, especially as they aged.

Medical centers seeking to work with more lines could use only private or state money. They constructed elaborate accounting procedures, bought duplicate equipment and secured separate lab space to avoid comingling funds.

At Harvard, equipment for unapproved stem cell research was marked with a green label. At Minnesota, scientists working with unapproved stem cells used Uni-Ball Vision pens while those working on NIH projects used Pentel TKO pens. Universities now can dismantle the parallel bureaucracies and hundreds of embryonic stem cell lines created since 2001 can be shared nationally.

"We know we're on the right path, and now we just have to accelerate this research, and we believe it will result in us having something akin to a cure when we can transplant these cells and reverse the disease," said Robert Pearlman, president of Miami's Diabetes Research Institute Foundation, which has a privately funded lab where scientists try to coax embryonic stem cells into insulin-producing cells.

Contact Wes Allison at (202)463-0577 or allison@sptimes.com. Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.

Obama's stem cell order unties the hands of researchers and raises hopes for cures 03/09/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 19, 2009 12:07pm]

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