Members of Congress also have had a few things to say about embryonic stem cells. Some say they hold the potential for medical miracles. Others claim it's a moral abomination to use them. Either way, human embryonic stem cells captured headlines in the past decade in a way few areas of scientific research have before. NPR's Joe Palca looks at the policies under three presidents.
JOE PALCA: Embryonic stem cells have remarkable properties. They can grow indefinitely in the lab, and they can turn into any cell type in the body. But to get them, you must destroy an embryo. Scientists first showed that it was possible to grow human embryonic stem cells in 1998.
Under normal circumstances, other scientists would have rushed in to study the new cells. But there was a problem. Because of congressional restrictions, federal money couldn't be used for research that harms an embryo.
President Bill Clinton interpreted that to mean scientists could use federal money to study embryonic stem cells once they were growing in the lab, provided they used private money to create them. But before President Clinton's decision took effect, George W. Bush became president. One of his first acts as president was to put that decision on hold so he could reconsider it.
In August 2001, the new president decided that despite his finding the research morally troubling...
President GEORGE W. BUSH: I have concluded that we should allow federal funds to be used for research on these existing stem cell lines where the life and death decision has already been made.
PALCA: The existing stem cell lines turned out to be a dozen or so lines that had already been made using non-federal dollars. They were made from embryos that would have been discarded by fertility clinics.
The decision pleased no one. Scientists were upset by the restrictions. Critics of the research were upset the president had allowed any federal money to be spent on embryonic stem cells. Both sides went to work to change the policy.
A bipartisan Congress voted to ease federal restrictions. President Bush vetoed the legislation. Congressional opponents continued to push for a total ban on the research. And states got into the fray. In California, voters authorized spending $3 billion over 10 years for embryonic stem cell research
Candidate Barack Obama promised to ease the Bush administration's restrictions, a promise President Obama made good on in March.
President BARACK OBAMA: Today, with the executive order I am about to sign, we will bring the change that so many scientists and researchers, doctors and innovators, patients and loved ones have hoped for and fought for these past eight years. We will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research.
(Soundbite of applause)
PALCA: Of course it wasn't really a ban, just restrictions. But the scientists attending Mr. Obama's speech were clearly jubilant. So where does all the political to-ing and fro-ing leave the research?
Dr. LEN ZON (Stem Cell Researcher, Children's Hospital in Boston): Well, I think we're in to an exciting period of time.
PALCA: Len Zon is a stem cell researcher at Children's Hospital in Boston. He says there's a lot of exciting basic research being done with embryonic stem cells, but using them to treat patients?
Dr. ZON: I think that's still a ways off. Although there are some initial studies that the FDA is considering, I think we still need to figure out how to make these cells in a more efficient and effective way, and I think that's going to take still awhile. You know, you have to remember the stem cell field is only 10 years old at this moment.
PALCA: Zon points out it's frequently two decades or more before new medical technologies find their way into patients.
More immediate, Zon thinks, is finding new drug therapies using a technique made possible by a Japanese researcher named Shinya Yamanaka. He found a way to take ordinary skin cells and turn them into cells that behave just like embryonic stem cells, but without destroying an embryo.
The new technique gives scientists unprecedented abilities. For example, they can take cells from a patient with a disease and convert them into these embryonic stem cell-like cells that can grow indefinitely in the lab. Zon thinks this will change the way scientists understand diseases.
Dr. ZON: I think that it's going to be possible in certain cases to alter the disease itself with chemicals.
PALCA: And if a particular chemical can repair diseased cells in the lab, then it may be possible to turn that chemical into a drug to treat patients. But even though these new cells offer great promise, Zon says research using cells derived from human embryos is still essential.
Dr. ZON: Because these new stem cells from the skin have to be compared to a golden standard and the golden standard is the embryonic stem cells.
PALCA: So for the time being, at least, scientists will continue to do research on embryonic stem cells now in a more permissive environment.
Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.
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