Nov 8, 2008

Science - New hope for stem cell research

The seven-year embryonic stem cell research winter brought about by George W. Bush’s reactionary ‘pro-life’ policy seems to be finally coming to an end. By restricting federal funding for research on embryonic stem cell lines created before August 2001, the Bush administration stifled research and created a big roadblock to the progress of science. Researchers, frustrated by the decision that was not taken on scientific merit, can heave a sigh of relief because President-elect Barack Obama has made it clear that he is a strong supporter of embryonic stem cell research. The fact that he was the co-sponsor of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007, which sought the expansion of federal funding, is testimony to his political commitment to remove the hurdles in this important field of medicine. In an April 2008 statement, the man who was going to be elected the 44th President of the United States said the current policy was “preventing the advancement of important science that could potentially impact millions of suffering Americans,” and added reassuringly that “we must all work together to expand federal funding for stem cell research.”

Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama, with their opposing standpoints on embryonic stem cell research, make for an interesting comparison. If in Mr. Bush’s blinkered view, using adult stem cells in the treatment of certain diseases is all right, Mr. Obama sees them as no substitute for embryonic stem cells. Mr. Bush’s right-wing ideology, which sees the harvesting of stem cells from embryos stored in infertility clinics as destroying life, fails to take cognisance of the ultimate destruction of such embryos. Mr. Obama, on the other hand, sees them as an ideal source of stem cells. If the Bush administration’s failure to regulate stem cell research, where the possibilities of misuse are high, is shocking, the President-elect understands the need to have appropriate oversight. The lack of regulation is not the only reason why the U.S. is far behind the United Kingdom in this exciting field. By not going the whole hog in allowing the creation of embryos expressly for research, Mr. Obama will still keep his country a step behind the U.K. But he is on the right track to unfetter this promising field of medicine. He has the persuasive skills to get the 2007 Act amended by Congress so that expanded federal funding can be provided, as the community of American scientists has demanded. After his overwhelming victory of November 4, 2008, Mr. Obama certainly has the political and moral authority to get the legislative branch to do what has been overdue.

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