At a White House ceremony attended by scientific leaders, President Obama on Monday ordered the National Institutes of Health to issue guidelines removing the Bush administration's limits on human embryonic stem cell research funding within 120 days.
Obama also ordered the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy — in a "Scientific Integrity" memorandum — to create a plan to fill federal science positions solely based on merit and to insulate them from political interference. "Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings," says the memorandum.
"The two (orders) are a nice pairing: One is a very concrete step on stem cells, and the other sets a much wider tone on how science will be conducted," says attorney Robert Kenney of Hogan & Hartson in Washington, D.C., who specializes in federal research funds.
Here are answers to common questions, based on interviews with researchers and policy experts.
Q: What does this mean for research?
A: Federal funding "to the extent permitted by law" will become available for hundreds of human embryonic stem cells derived from colonies created since Aug. 9, 2001, many of them genetically marked for diseases such as diabetes or cancer. Under the Bush administration rules, only 21 stem cell "lines" had been eligible for research funding.
Q: What are embryonic stem cells?
A: They are cells isolated from the early stages of embryo growth, which turn into almost all of the tissues of the body. At their early stage, however, they are unspecialized, with the potential to grow into any type of cell and to reproduce in large numbers.
Q: How are they collected?
A: Typically, couples donate excess embryos from fertility procedures to researchers. Researchers pull the 150 or so cells from inside one of these roughly 6-day-old embryos, destroying it, and grow the cells in a lab.
Q: Why is this controversial?
A: Some religious groups, such as the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, and political leaders, such as former president George W. Bush, have decried the death of the embryos. Bush called it the "taking of innocent human life of the hope of finding medical benefits for others" in a 2006 veto of a bill that would have made the same research funding available then that Obama made available on Monday.
Q: What dangers do opponents see in Obama's action?
A: The National Right to Life Committee says the order "opens door to human embryo farms," charging that researchers will start mass-harvesting embryos to create cell lines. Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., echoed these concerns and, in a statement, called the moves "divisive" amid larger concerns about the economy.
Q: What limits did Obama place, if any, on the stem cell lines that can now receive federal dollars for study?
A: Obama called for "appropriate safeguards," allowing research "only when it is both scientifically worthy and responsibly conducted. We will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse."
The NIH will take its cue from science organization guidelines that preclude cell lines gathered without informed consent or inappropriate compensation of embryo donors.