Obama To Reverse Limits On Stem Cell Research President Barack Obama is expected to reverse Bush-era restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Obama is expected to announce the move Monday, freeing up federal funds for research on those stem cell lines created after Aug. 9, 2001.

Obama To Reverse Limits On Stem Cell Research

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

President Obama appears ready to lift restrictions on federal funding for research on human embryonic stem cells. The president is expected to announce a change from President Bush's policy at a White House event on Monday. And joining us to explain what this means is NPR's Joe Palca. Hey, Joe.

JOE PALCA: Hey.

BLOCK: Explain the current regulation, please, on federal funding for stem cell research.

PALCA: Well, what the current federal regulation is, is that you can use federal dollars to do research on human embryonic stem cells, but those stem cells have to have been created, the stem cell lines have to have been created, prior to August 9, 2001, which was the day that President George W. Bush announced his policy.

And he said he was morally troubled by this. He didn't want to encourage any embryos to be destroyed, which you have to do to make these, but he said for ones that they've already made, it's okay, the work can go forward.

And his decision comes after the Clinton administration decided that they would allow this funding but never went ahead with it.

BLOCK: Now, President Obama, then candidate Obama, promised to change this policy during the campaign. What exactly do we expect him to do on Monday -lift this entirely?

PALCA: The issue has been: Can you do the kinds of research you want to do with the lines that currently qualify for federal funding? I have to point out here that if you get independent funding, private funding and state funding - California, for example, doesn't have this restriction on California researchers, who receive state money for embryonic stem cell research - but the federal funds have been closed and presumably, these will be opened.

And it's not going to be a free-for-all. The president and the National Institutes of Health has always intended to have a set of ethical guidelines, and only certain - you know, the research that's morally acceptable, once you accept the fact that you're using these cells at all - so there will be some caveats.

BLOCK: Joe, the promise has been that stem cell research could lead to cures for diseases such as Parkinson's Disease, diabetes. If and when the ban on funding and restrictions are lifted, what expectation do you have that those cures might be found any earlier?

PALCA: Well, you know, this is, of course, the question that's impossible to answer, but scientists will tell you that the only way they're going to find these cures is to do the research, and the only way they can do the research at the speed which they think the research deserves is to get federal research dollars because really, that's the big engine for basic biomedical research.

Pharmaceutical companies have not jumped on this because the payoff is a long way off, and it's not necessarily something that's going to be looking good on their ledger books right away. So it's a ways down the line.

BLOCK: In the meantime, with these restrictions in place, haven't scientists found alternatives to using embryonic stem cells?

PALCA: Well, exactly, and President Bush has said - you see? By restricting these cells, others have found ways around this problem of destroying an embryo to get the same kind of cells. These are so-called induced, pluripotent stem cells that behave just like embryonic stem cells, but you start with a normal skin cell or something like that.

Scientists will tell you, yes, these cells are very promising and yes, they may in fact be a morally untainted way of getting cells for treatment of diseases, but for now they've had a lot more experience, albeit somewhat limited by the restrictions, with embryonic stem cell research, and so they feel it's important to push ahead both with these embryonic stem cells and with these new induced pluripotent stem cells. They say that's the way to get where they want to be.

BLOCK: Okay, Joe, thanks a lot.

PALCA: You're welcome.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Joe Palca, talking about President Obama's plan to lift restrictions on the federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research. He's expected to announce the policy change on Monday.

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