For the last eight years, human embryonic stem cell research -- which is improving our understanding of how we can treat and defeat diseases such as Parkinson's and diabetes -- has been a hostage of presidential politics. Monday's executive order by President Barack Obama changes that, lifting many restrictions on federal funding for research on new stem cell lines derived from human embryos. Unfortunately, this stroke of the pen does not remove key legislative hurdles that will continue to prevent federal dollars from being spent on this critical science.
Stem cell research represents the most revolutionary area of medical research today, opening possibilities for treating cancer, diabetes, Lou Gehrig's disease, blindness and paralysis. The previous administration's ban cost researchers precious time in the race for new cures, treatments and discoveries. TIME magazine recently cited a New York Stem Cell Foundation-funded breakthrough by Dr. Kevin Eggan as the most significant scientific achievement in 2008. Because of the ban on federal funding, this groundbreaking work was only possible through the generosity of private donors.
President Obama's symbolic decision to address this transforming medical issue will ultimately give laboratories nationwide new resources to change lives. But while the new administration brings a refreshingly friendly attitude toward science, in general, and stem cell research in particular, researchers will still lack easy access to the full range of possibilities that stem cells present.
Significant obstacles remain in the path of stem cell research progress. The president possesses unilateral authority only to allow federal funding of research on new and existing embryonic stem cell lines -- he cannot single-handedly green-light federal funding to create the stem cell lines themselves. That's because Congress in 1996 banned the use of human embryos, even those discarded in fertility clinics or voluntarily made for scientific purposes, for research purposes -- including the creation of embryonic stem cells. That piece of legislation, the so-called Dickey-Wicker Amendment, is inextricably linked to abortion politics, and is unlikely to be removed from the books in the near future.
It is crucial to our ultimate success to allow wide access to all of the stem cell lines that have already been created from embryos, as well as to continue to create new lines for comparative and other purposes, including the research that can only be done with human embryonic stem cells. Researchers throughout the world feel that the new "induced pluripotentiary stem cells" (iPS for short) are powerful tools for scientists studying the mechanisms of human disease in their laboratories. However, scientists agree that human embryonic stem cells remain the "gold standard" of research, making the production of new stem cells of urgent importance.
Private funding sources like NYSCF, which are by nature far more nimble than government agencies, are still essential to advancing stem cell research. Private philanthropy is, and will continue to be, a critical and necessary driver of the most innovative and promising stem cell science.
We cannot continue to ask our best scientists to work with one hand tied behind their backs. Finding better treatments and cures for these terrible diseases is urgent work. The New York Stem Cell Foundation will continue to use private philanthropy to ensure that scientists are able to perform the experiments that simply wouldn't be funded or initiated elsewhere, which will continue to change the way scientists and the public view what is possible in this burgeoning medical area. And we hope that Congress will act quickly, once and for all, to put patients before politics by putting science first.
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