WASHINGTON -- President Obama's announcement today that he is overturning his predecessor's policies toward embryonic stem cells also will include a broad declaration that science -- not political ideology -- would guide his administration.
Obama planned to reverse former president George W. Bush's limits on federally funded stem-cell research through the National Institutes of Health and to put in place safeguards through the Office of Science and Technology Policy so that science is protected from political interference. The moves would fulfill a campaign promise.
"We've got eight years of science to make up for," said Dr. Curt Civin, whose research allowed scientists to isolate stem cells and who now serves as the founding director of the University of Maryland Center for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. "Now, the silly restrictions are lifted."
Bush limited taxpayer money for stem-cell research to a small number of stem-cell lines that were created before Aug. 9, 2001. Many of those faced drawbacks. Hundreds more of such lines -- groups of cells that can continue to propagate in lab dishes -- have been created since then. Scientists say those newer lines are healthier and better suited to creating treatments for diseases, but they were largely off-limits to researchers who took federal dollars.
"We view what happened with stem-cell research in the last administration is one manifestation of failure to think carefully about how federal support of science and the use of scientific advice occurs," said Harold Varmus, a Nobel Prize-winning biologist who is chairman of the White House's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology.
Bush and his supporters said they were defending human life; days-old embryos -- typically from fertility-clinic leftovers otherwise destined to be thrown away -- are destroyed for the stem cells.
Obama's advisers sought to downplay the divisions.
"I think we all realize, and the president certainly understands, there are people of good faith on both sides of this issue," said Melody Barnes, the White House's domestic policy adviser. "We recognize there are a range of beliefs on this."
Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House, said the focus should be on the economy, not on a long-simmering debate over stem cells.
"Frankly, federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research can bring on embryo harvesting, perhaps even human cloning that occurs," he said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union." "We don't want that. ... And certainly that is something that we ought to be talking about, but let's take care of business first. People are out of jobs."
The long-promised move will allow a rush of research aimed at one day better treating, if not curing, ailments from diabetes to paralysis -- research that has drawn broad support, including from notables such as Nancy Reagan, widow of the late Republican President Ronald Reagan, and the late Christopher Reeve.
The move also will highlight divisions within the Republican Party, now in the minority and lacking votes in Congress to stop Obama.
The proposed changes, which Obama planned to sign around noon today, do not fund creation of new lines, nor specify which existing lines can be used. They mean that scientists who until now have had to rely on private donations to work with these newer stem-cell lines can apply for government money for the research, just like they do for studies of gene therapy or other treatment approaches.
The stem cell executive order does not delve into any specifics, instead leaving it up to NIH to monitor medical ethics and write the rules for who can receive federal dollars. Aides would not estimate how much money could be available for embryonic stem-cell research.
Embryonic stem cells are master cells that can morph into any cell of the body. Scientists hope to harness them so they can create replacement tissues to treat a variety of diseases -- such as new insulin-producing cells for diabetics, cells that could help those with Parkinson's disease or maybe even Alzheimer's, or new nerve connections to restore movement after spinal injury.
But they come with criticism.
"I believe it is unethical to use human life, even young embryonic life, to advance science," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative organization that opposes the move.
"While such research is unfortunately legal, taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for experiments that require the destruction of human life," said Perkins. "I urge President Obama to direct funding not only to the best science, but also to the surest common ground -- research using adult stem cells and stem cells created by reprogramming."
Civin said that type of rhetoric was not helpful.
"This was already life that was going to be destroyed," he said. "The choice is throw them away or use them for research."