For Dr. George Daley, Sen. Barack Obama's recent victory in the U.S. presidential election was a hopeful sign for an issue he holds close to his heart -- and which he believes has the potential to save lives.
The issue is stem cell research. And Daley, immediate past president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, says that, since the election, hopes have been high that the next four years could signal an era of greater flexibility for scientists in the field.
"We are hopeful that removing restrictions on funding for stem cells will be one of the first acts of the Obama presidency," Daley said.
"In the research community, we would all breathe a sigh of relief."
The restrictions, which have been in place since 1994, have been seen by many in the field as a stifling force. Though such research was still possible through private and state dollars, the creation of and experimentation on such lines quickly became taboo for many universities and other research centers under fear of scrutiny.
The first hint of a policy change came Aug. 30 when the group Science Debate 2008 received a response to questions they posed to both the Obama and McCain campaigns regarding their positions on federal funds for stem cell research.
"I strongly support expanding research on stem cells," the response from the Obama team reads. "I believe that the restrictions that President Bush has placed on funding of human embryonic stem cell research have handcuffed our scientists and hindered our ability to compete with other nations.
"As president, I will lift the current administration's ban on federal funding of research on embryonic stem cell lines created after Aug. 9, 2001 through executive order, and I will ensure that all research on stem cells is conducted ethically and with rigorous oversight."
Most researchers shared Daley's enthusiasm. "The next administration adopts the mainstream view of the majority of Americans: that stem cell research offers the best hope and potential for some of the desperately needed cures for currently untreatable diseases," said James Douglas Engel, professor and chair of the department of cell and developmental biology at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. "Obviously, if federal funds become available for this research it will hasten our goal of developing cures for these diseases."
Others said that such a move could put the United States on pace with Israel, Australia, Canada, Japan and a number of Western European countries that have adopted flexible policies to push embryonic stem cell research.
"Politically, this will have an important effect on providing an open policy for stem cell research in the U.S., and could help increase our country's status as a leader in the field," said Dr. Paul Sanberg, director of the Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
But not all agreed that such a reversal would have an immediate positive effect.
"This is principally form over substance," said Tim McCaffrey, director of The George Washington University Medical Center's Catherine Birch McCormick Genomics Center in Washington, D.C.
"The benefit to the health of the American public will result only from substantial and sustained increases to the NIH budget," McCaffrey said. "Simply changing a particular regulation about the use of federal funds to create new lines will have no impact whatsoever when the funding to take advantage of stem cells is quite limited."
Lifting a Longstanding Ban
The first executive branch move to block federal funding for the creation of embryos for stem cell research came in 1994 under the pen of President Bill Clinton. This position was reinforced by President George W. Bush, who, in August 2001, strengthened the ban on federal funding by barring federal funds for research on all but a few existing embryonic stem cell lines.
What should and should not happen to embryos remains a source of intense debate. Embryos, which are balls of cells created by putting a sperm cell and an egg cell together and allowing the result to divide, are valuable to researchers because they represent a source of undifferentiated cells not programmed to be any type of cell in particular.
In essence, an embryonic stem cell is a blank check; scientists hope we will eventually be able to control the development of these cells, making them into whatever tissues are needed.
While some maintain that research on new embryonic cell lines could one day yield treatments and cures for devastating illnesses, others say the embryos represent human life and should not be destroyed.
But with the adversity of the ban came some new approaches. Among these was the advent of induced pluripotent (iPS) cells -- cells which are nudged into a state from which they can differentiate into a limited number of different cell types. Researchers agree that these cells do not have the degree of flexibility afforded by their embryonic counterparts, but they have, nonetheless, allowed for limited therapeutic research.
Other research that has qualified for federal funding has focused on so-called adult stem cells -- cells which are extracted from adult tissues and tweaked to yield other cell types.
Dr. Neil Theise, an adult stem cell researcher and professor of pathology and medicine at the Beth Israel Medical Center of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, said that a lifting of the embryonic stem cell research ban would "lift the need for political opposition to adult stem cell research, as well" and have benefits across the board for all forms of stem cell research.
"It is by pursuing both paths that practical therapeutic and industrial benefits can manifest in the swiftest, most safe and cost-effective manner," he said.
Lifting Ban May Not Mean More Money
But others believe that opening the gates to federal funds could have the exact opposite effect, actually decreasing the amount of money available to researchers.
"Unless there is a boost in funding for this research at the NIH, it is highly likely that funding for currently allowed research will actually decrease as the pool of funds gets diluted by new applications," Sanberg said. "Overall funding for stem cell research in our country could decrease if the states feel less inclined to fund their own stem cell initiatives in a downward economy, thinking that the federal government is now funding all stem cell research."
Groups opposed to embryonic stem cell research predicted such a slip in overall funding, as well.
"The concern with new federal policies is that any rush to create new lines from embryos will simply siphon valuable funds away from research with much greater potential, including iPS cells, and especially existing and developing adult stem cell therapies that are already treating patients for dozens of diseases," said David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences for the Family Research Council, a Christian political organization that opposes embryonic stem cell research.