"Politicization of embryonic stem cell work has been detrimental and has scared some of the public, but the biggest obstacle has been lack of funding," said Roy Ogle, professor of medicine, biomedical engineering and plastic surgery at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "We would be seven years closer to treatments than we are now if the Bush administration had supported scientific research adequately."
Despite what many see as funding shortfalls for stem cell research, U.S. scientists have already started to unlock the therapeutic potential of nonembryonic stem cells.
"We are very close to seeing treatments for diseases of bone marrow, blood and the immune system, using cell replacement therapies, employing stem cells from bone marrow, peripheral blood and cord blood," Ogle said.
"We have proof of principle studies in animals and limited clinical trials that suggest adult stem cells can be used to regenerate, repair or replace musculoskeletal tissues — bone, cartilage, muscle, tendon, et cetera — blood vessels, skin and peripheral nerves."
While progress has been made, other researchers agree that the current stranglehold of a federal ban on funding for most human embryonic stem cell research continues to stymie advances.
However, others note that current challenges in gene research have less to do with politics and funding, and much more to do with the current boundaries of knowledge.
"The barriers to the therapeutic use of [embryonic stem cells] are primarily scientific, not political," said Dr. Markus Grompe, professor of medical and molecular genetics at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. "Work on the NIH [National Institutes of Health] approved cell lines is progressing with federal funding."
Tim McCaffrey, professor and vice chair of biochemistry and molecular biology at the George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., agrees.
"While it is interesting, and entertaining, to frame the stem cell field in terms of 'political barriers,' the true legal barriers are quite minimal, while the immunological and technical barriers to using stem cells therapeutically are quite substantial, " McCaffrey said.
"It is crucial to understand that stem cell research is producing knowledge, which can translate into therapeutic advances within the next few years," he said. "But, it is quite possible that stem cells, themselves, may or may not be part of the therapy."
Still, Monday's announcement, if nothing else, may serve to hearten those involved in groundbreaking work in genetics — a promising high note for those in the field.
"I would argue that these basic studies have already contributed to saving lives, through insights into disease and drug development," said Dr. George Daley, associate professor of medicine at Children's Hospital Boston.
"I believe that human embryonic stem cells will likewise translate into important biomedical advances. It will just take time."