But proponents of the study of embryonic stem cells say much of this research uses discarded embryos from in-vitro fertilization procedures, which in all likelihood would have been destroyed anyway.
As the discussion over the potential promises of embryonic stem cells has evolved in the last decade, so too have public opinions of the research. Currently, most Americans appear to support the loosening of restrictions on embryonic stem cell research; according to the results of a January ABC/Post poll, 59 percent of Americans support loosening the restrictions, while 35 percent oppose doing so.
The relaxation of federal funding restrictions sits well with most Democrats, as well as with most independents. Republicans were more likely to oppose lifting such restrictions, with only 40 percent supporting such a move and 55 percent opposing it.
Indeed, the president's action comes more than a month after the Jan. 23 approval by the Food and Drug Administration of the first study of a treatment based on human embryonic stem cells aimed at treating those with spinal cord injuries.
"This decision is a major step forward for stem cell research in the United States," said Martin Pera, professor and founding director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at USC. "The move will enable NIH-funded researchers to work on valuable new embryonic stem cell lines ... to determine which cell lines are best suited to treat particular diseases."
"This is a huge step forward and typical of Barack Obama, who is an incredible breath of fresh air and exactly the president the U.S. and the world needed," said Helen Blau, director of the Baxter Laboratory in Genetic Pharmacology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. "Thank goodness this senseless ban has been lifted."
Still, Dr. Allen Spiegel, dean of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and vice chair of the National Institutes of Health Stem Cell Task Force, said the years of restriction on embryonic stem cell research has been a major setback for U.S. researchers.
"In hearings before Sen. [Arlen] Specter [R-Pa.] and [Tom] Harkin [D-Iowa], I stated that banning funding for research on human embryonic stem cells was like tying one hand behind the backs of stem cell investigators," Spiegel said. "Lifting the ban cannot eliminate the effect of years of delay, but harnessing the full power of NIH to review and fund scientifically meritorious research projects will accelerate progress toward the goal of helping people suffering from diabetes, neurologic diseases, and many other conditions."
Other researchers remained cautious in their enthusiasm.
"I'm super excited, but the devil's in the details," said stem cell researcher Dr. George Daley, associate professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Harvard Medical School in Boston. "I'm still worried that he might say that only some types of lines will be allowed."
"I hope he'll say the decision should be made by scientists and allow the NIH [National Institutes of Health] to decide based on the recommendations of experts and scientists outside of politics and religion," he said. "This is where the NIH [National Institutes of Health] has served us so well in other areas, and we've been missing that for the past eight years."