Obama overturns stem cell research funding ban

By Gareth Macdonald

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Stem cell

The US green light for federally funded embryonic stem cell research is being hailed as a victory by the US drug industry, which predicts it will open the flood gates for novel medications and help revitalise the sector.

Speaking at the White House on Monday, President Obama said that: "In recent years, when it comes to stem cell research, rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values.

"As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly​."

President Obama’s decision means that some of the $10bn (€7.8bn) allocated for healthcare research in the government’s stimulus package is likely to be earmarked for work on stem cells.

While not commenting directly, a statement issued by Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) senior VP Ken Johnson to coincide with President Obama’s address stressed the importance of scientific freedom for the drug industry and researchers.

Johnson said that: “As Congress and the Administration look to strengthen and enhance the FDA… the scientific community needs to know that its work will not be influenced by anyone’s political agenda.

The good news is that there are currently thousands of new medicines in the pipeline that can help treat diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer​,” added Johnson.

In its response, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) said it will “review existing NIH and other widely-recognized guidelines on human stem cell research and issue new NIH guidance within 120 days​.”

Eight year long ban

In 2001, the previous US Administration blocked government funding for stem cell research on all but 21 pre-existing stem cell lines in a move that many observers considered was a sop to the Republican Party’s core voting demographic.

While some state organisations did provide investment, most notably the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) with its $3bn 10-year programme, amounts were limited and wider budgetary concerns always made such funding vulnerable.

The net affect of the ban and the difficulty guaranteeing funding from other sources was to increase the amount of research on adult stem cells, which were not covered, and to cause pharmaceutical firms to deprioritise stem cell programmes.

However, the tide began days just after President Obama’s inauguration in January when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) became the first regulatory body anywhere in the world to clear human trials of a stem cell therapy, Geron Corps’ GRNOPC1 for spinal cord injury.

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