March 9, 2009 -- In what has been interpreted as a direct rebuke of former President George W. Bush, President Obama said today that his administration would make "scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology."
The president signed an executive order ending an 8½-year ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, paving the way for a significant amount of federal funds to flow to science.
"At this moment, the full promise of stem cell research remains unknown, and it should not be overstated," Obama said this morning before signing the order. "But scientists believe these tiny cells may have the potential to help us understand, and possibly cure, some of our most devastating diseases and conditions."
The president's speech was equal parts hope for the new research and support for the scientists involved in such work.
"Today, with the executive order I am about to sign, we will bring the change that so many scientists and researchers, doctors and innovators, patients and loved ones have hoped for, and fought for, these past eight years: We will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research," Obama said. "We will vigorously support scientists who pursue this research. And we will aim for America to lead the world in the discoveries it one day may yield."
White House officials have said that the president's order will give the National Institutes of Health 120 days to develop ethical guidelines for the research.
The NIH said in a briefing today that they are currently looking for ways to streamline the research process and determine how quickly grant money can be made available. While most grant processes can take as long as nine months, which would delay funds reaching researchers for up to a full year, the NIH has indicated it will try to expedite the grant process to get money from the stimulus out quickly.
"Encompassed in [the executive order] will also be the requirements around guidelines that will be drafted by the NIH [National Institutes of Health] as they ... work with others around the country to make sure we're handling the issue responsibly," said Melody Barnes, the director of the president's Domestic Policy Council.
The president also signed a memorandum that Barnes says will "restore scientific integrity in government decision making." It will help ensure public policy is "guided by sound scientific advice," she said.
The memorandum covers all scientific research, including such areas as energy and climate change. The Bush administration was often accused of allowing politics to color its scientific decisions, something the administration denied.
Actor Michael J. Fox, a longtime advocate for embryonic stem cell research, expressed his enthusiasm for the president's plan and commended Obama for "recognizing the inherent value of research freedom and creating an environment in which it can flourish."
"Today is a new day. I'm thrilled to see President Obama has honored his commitment to get politics out of science," Fox, who has Parkinson's disease, told "Good Morning America." "The last few years have been incredibly frustrating for patients and researchers who believe that embryonic stem cell research has the potential to bring better treatment."
Former first lady Nancy Reagan, who has emerged as a prominent supporter of stem cell research after her husband, former President Ronald Reagan, passed away in 2004 after a 10-year battle with Alzheimer's disease, said in a statement that she is "very grateful" that Obama has reversed the federal government's policy on embryonic stem cell research funding.
"These new rules will now make it possible for scientists to move forward," Reagan said in the statement. "Countless people, suffering from many different diseases, stand to benefit from the answers stem cell research can provide. We owe it to ourselves and to our children to do everything in our power to find cures for these diseases -- and soon."
One of those on hand for the signing at the White House was 34-year-old Roman Reed, who was paralyzed from the waist down at age 19, while playing college football.
The Fremont, Calif., resident and his parents have become tireless advocates for embryonic stem cell research. They were instrumental in getting California to fund this research when the federal government would not.
Reed told ABC News he is convinced embryonic stem cell research holds limitless promise.
"I know one day I will get out of this chair and pick up my son and hold him right. I promised my family that I would walk again, and I will make that dream come true," Reed said. "[President John F. Kennedy] was first to put man on [the] moon. Under President Obama the paralyzed will be the first to walk on Earth."
Reed's father and mother accompanied him to Washington.
"The last eight years have been frustrating," said Don Reed, Reed's father. "It's hard to have the president of the United States be an obstacle. We want the president on our side."
Also present were Washington, D.C., parents Laurie Strongin and Allen Goldberg, who used early stem cell technologies in an attempt to save the life of their son, Henry Strongin Goldberg. Henry, who had the rare genetic Fanconi anemia,died at the age of 7 when the experimental treatments failed to save him.
"Henry had a rare illness," Strongin said in a statement released Sunday. "Not one of the few stem cell lines that President Bush specified in his 2001 stem cell decision provided for research into Fanconi anemia or other devastating illnesses."
"It takes time to advance science from the laboratory to clinical trials to the bedside," Goldberg added in the statement. "We've lost eight precious years. We can't get Henry or that time back. Tomorrow the clock begins to tick anew, and the best medical minds can get to work."
The significance of the move has been hailed by disease advocacy organizations as a positive step toward new treatments for a variety of conditions, such as Parkinson's and Type-1 diabetes, where the embryonic stem cells might be able to replace cells in the patient's body which have malfunctioned.
"We are delighted to hear that President Obama will be signing a stem cell executive order on Monday, restoring a level of scientific freedom to this country that we believe is critical to the future," said Katie Hood, CEO of The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research in a statement issued Friday. "Our foundation is optimistic about the work that will now continue toward better treatments and cures for the millions of people impacted by injury or disease."
The announcement resounded through the research community as well. Sean Morrison, the director of the University of Michigan Center for Stem Cell Biology in Ann Arbor, said he was "overjoyed" at the news of Obama's reversal.
"President Obama's executive order signals a new day in which science policy will be based on science and in which the federal government can invest in the best ideas with the greatest potential to improve public health," Morrison said. "America will once again seek to be the world's engine for biomedical discovery, leading the way toward new treatments for disease."
Morrison warned that the promise of stem cell research remains unknown.
"It's important for people to understand that embryonic stem cell research is not going to cure spinal cord injury or other disease overnight," said Morrison. "These are complicated problems."
But the executive order that ends President Bush's 2001 ban on such research will likely bring no such end to the fierce political debate that surrounds the use of embryonic stem cells.
Reaction to President Obama Lifting Stem Cell Research Restrictions
Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., -- co-author of the stem cell legislation that President Bush vetoed twice -- welcomed the White House decision.
"I could not be more excited to hear that President Obama will finally lift the stifling restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research -- something I have actively fought for over the last five years," Castle said in a statement released last week. "This single action symbolizes a new day for scientific research and highlights the importance of a strong federal role in promoting potentially life-saving science."
But House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said millions of people oppose the decision.
"Advancements in science and research have moved faster than the debates among politicians in Washington, D.C., and breakthroughs announced in recent years confirm that the full potential of stem cell research can be realized without the destruction of living human embryos," Boehner's statements read. "The question is whether taxpayer dollars should be used to subsidize the destruction of precious human life. Millions of Americans strongly oppose that, and rightfully so."
David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences for the Washington, D.C.-based Christian advocacy group Family Research Council, expressed similar disappointment.
"There are adult stem cells that are helping to improve patients' health and saving lives, and these new iPS cells that are providing basic research tools to study disease," Prentice said. "It's really a waste of resources to be moving in that direction now. It's a waste of funding, and it's a waste of lives, both in terms of the embryos and the patients waiting for these advances. ... I think it's clear that this is perhaps just fulfilling a campaign promise that was ill conceived."
Public Mostly Supportive of Embryonic Stem Cell Research
What has traditionally made embryonic stem cells such a hot-button issue is the fact that, in order to obtain them, researchers must destroy human embryos -- a step that some say violates the sanctity of human life.
In August 2001, Bush signed an executive order barring federal funds for embryonic stem cell research on all but a couple dozen existing embryonic stem cell lines.
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.
Researchers Overwhelmingly Positive
"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."
Reports from Sunlen Miller, Jake Tapper, Karen Travers, Gary Langer and the ABC News Medical Unit contributed to this report.