Obama Win 'Sigh of Relief' for Stem Cell Research

"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.

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