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Obama Cools the Stem-Cell Debate

by Jesse ReynoldsSan Francisco Chronicle
April 27th, 2009

While juggling a collapsing economy and major initiatives during his first months in office, President Obama tackled - and cooled - a contentious issue that has simmered for almost 10 years: embryonic stem cell research. His March 9 executive order fulfilled a campaign promise to lift his predecessor's restrictions on its federal funding.

The president outlined his new approach, leaving the details up to the National Institutes of Health. A week ago, the NIH unveiled its draft guidelines.

The new regulations would permit federal support for research with stem cell lines derived from embryos that are created, but not used, for fertility treatments. There are hundreds of thousands of such excess embryos in storage, most scheduled for eventual destruction regardless of scientists' activities. At the same time, federal support would not be permitted for work with stem cell lines derived from embryos created with cloning techniques - if any are ever successfully produced.

This is a thoughtful approach, and the right thing to do.

There are very good reasons - technical, ethical and political - why cloning-based stem cell research should remain ineligible for federal funds.

The technical reason is that cloning has essentially proved to be a dead end. Despite almost a decade of effort, no lines have been derived using cloning techniques. Key stem cell scientists, notably including Ian Wilmut, who first cloned Dolly the sheep, are abandoning the procedure. In contrast, new methods of cellular reprogramming have achieved the goal of research cloning - fully potent, genetically matched lines - and are advancing rapidly.

Cloning-based stem cell research raises the two key ethical challenges that are not presented by the use of surplus embryos. First, efforts to create clonal embryos require huge numbers of fresh human eggs, whose extraction creates nontrivial health risks for the young women who would provide them. Second, research cloning would unavoidably lay the technical foundation for reproductive cloning, which is overwhelmingly opposed by the public, scientists and policymakers. In his stem cell remarks, President Obama called reproductive cloning "dangerous [and] profoundly wrong." Yet it remains generally legal and continues to tempt rogue scientists.

Finally, excluding cloning-based stem cell research from federal support is consistent with the values of most Americans. Surveys indicate that the public backs medical research using excess embryos from fertility clinics, but balks at cloning methods or creating human embryos specifically for research purposes. And it makes good on candidate Obama's pledge for stem cell research through "only the use of embryos that would otherwise be discarded."

The wisdom of the Obama administration's proposal and the NIH guidelines is demonstrated by the positive reactions among partisans on both sides of the stem cell wars. The CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Alan Leshner, said, "Some groups and scientists have wanted the administration to go further, but we are happy to have this." Samuel Rodriguez, a prominent pro-life evangelical, argued that "the new regulations embody caution and care that respect pro-life values."

That the new policy satisfies responsible leaders on both sides of the debate is a sign that the stem cell wars are cooling. After years of distortions and unrealistic promises, this is a welcome development. The president's position and the draft NIH policy show that we can strongly support biomedical research, while drawing reasonable lines and placing powerful biotechnologies under appropriate public oversight.

Jesse Reynolds is the director of the project on Biotechnology in the Public Interest at the Center for Genetics and Society

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