Georgia colleges embrace Obama’s stem cell decision

Published: March 7, 2009  |  Source: ajc.com
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For eight years, scientists have taken extreme measures to continue researching how embryonic stem cells could treat illness and injury.

With limits on federal money for their studies, some set up freestanding labs, with dedicated equipment, to avoid commingling private donations with government grants.

They couldn’t use the same microscope for federally approved research and for analyzing newly derived stem cell lines. They weren’t even sure they could use their university e-mail accounts to discuss their research.

Georgia scientists couldn’t even go that far. Little or no private funding flowed into the state for embryonic stem cell research, forcing scientists at Georgia universities to study only the older lines of stem cells created before President George W. Bush imposed the federal funding limits in 2001.

On Monday, President Barack Obama is expected to reverse course, allowing federal agencies to pay for research that proponents say could find effective treatments for diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, spinal cord injuries and a host of other debilitating medical conditions.

The move fulfills Obama’s campaign promise to separate politics from science, said Aaron Levine, an assistant professor of public policy at Georgia Tech. Levine has written extensively about the conflict between research proponents and those who view the use of human embryo tissue as immoral.

“It’s not going to be a short-term fix, necessarily,” Levine said Saturday. “But some new lines of research may open up.”

Most important, he said, lifting the funding restriction will allow scientists to “push their research toward the most promising technologies rather than the most politically expedient technologies.”

The potential use of embryonic stem cells to create replacement human tissue has always been controversial. Days-old embryos must be destroyed to obtain the cells; they typically are culled from unused embryos that fertility clinics would otherwise discard.

Religious conservatives reacted strongly as word of Obama’s decision leaked out Friday. In an interview with the New York Times, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, called it “a slap in the face to Americans who believe in the dignity of all human life.”

Bush’s 2001 order prohibited scientists receiving federal money from studying embryonic stem cell lines created after Aug. 9, 2001. He said they could continue research on older lines. But only 21 such lines exist, and Levine and others said many lines can’t be used in human studies.

Georgia universities are strongly interested in pursuing stem cell research, said Dr. Robert Taylor, the acting director of cardiology at Emory University who conducts research in regenerative medicine. Taylor’s research involves cells collected from “peripheral” blood rather than from embryonic sources.

At the University of Georgia, faculty members at the Regenerative Bioscience Center have received federal grants to work with the old stem cell lines. Georgia Tech and the Medical College of Georgia also have continuing research into stem cell use.

Obama’s decision changes the very nature of the research, Taylor said.

“This would open up a lot of opportunity,” Taylor said. Because of the funding restrictions, he said, “the United States is drifting behind other countries.”

New funding could come from the federal government’s economic stimulus package.

The National Institutes of Health announced recently that it will award at least $200 million in grants for stem-cell research as part of the stimulus program; at the time of the announcement, however, the old restrictions remained in place.

Obama’s announcement closely follows news that federal officials had approved the first study of a treatment using human embryonic stem cells, in people who recently suffered a spinal cord injury. The study, by Geron Corp., is to begin this summer.

— The Associated Press contributed to this story.

By ALAN JUDD