President Obama plans to rescind limits on federal funding for research on human embryonic stem cells by signing an executive order Monday, fulfilling a campaign promise to frustrated supporters of the scientific work.
White House aides confirmed Friday that Obama will announce a stem cell policy shift in an East Room ceremony. He is expected to lift restrictions imposed by President George W. Bush in August 2001.
Scientists in the Bay Area, one of the world's top centers of stem cell research and arguably the strongest in the nation, said they expect that Obama will allow the National Institutes of Health to support research on hundreds of embryonic stem cell lines that did not qualify for federal funding under the Bush policy.
Bush had agreed with religious and conservative groups opposed on moral grounds to the extraction of stem cells from human embryos. He limited NIH support to work on 21 embryonic stem cell lines that already had been created by 2001.
But researchers protested that those cells were unsuitable for use as therapies and were inadequate for the exploration of the full scientific potential of stem cell studies.
"There was this oppressive ideological blockade of the development of medical science," said Robert Klein, who now chairs the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine's governing body. "We've been finally freed from the Middle Ages."
While the Bush policy significantly hampered stem cell research, it did not forbid private funding of the work. Research teams throughout the country found alternate sources of support, and several states followed California's lead and created grant programs.
Scientists and disease advocacy groups had chafed at the Bush restrictions because they saw in stem cell research the possibility of cures or more effective treatments for a broad range of diseases. Embryonic stem cells retain the ability to transform into any of the specialized cell types that make up the body, such as nerve, muscle or skin cells. The hope is that such cells could provide replacement tissues for many illnesses, including spinal cord injuries and diabetes.
Dr. Deepak Srivastava, director of the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease in San Francisco's new biotechnology complex at Mission Bay, said Obama probably has timed his announcement to allow stem cell researchers to qualify for some of the billions of dollars to be provided to NIH under the nation's stimulus package to jump-start the ailing economy.
Srivastava said California is well placed to capture a significant share of that federal money because the state's $3 billion taxpayer-supported stem cell agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, has already paid to train scientists, support research and build new laboratories. The institute was created by a voter initiative in 2004.