Stem-cell research

2009-03-11 00:00

On Monday United States President Barack Obama reversed limits imposed by former president George W. Bush on using federal money for research using embryonic stem cells. This brings to an end eight years of frustration for teams of medical researchers in some of the U.S.’s most august academic institutions. It will mean that instead of continuing to use stem-cell lines developed before August 9, 2001, as the Bush legislation allowed, researchers will now have access to lines developed more recently — ones that are healthier and better suited to creating treatments. And they’ll be able to apply for government grants to work with these.

Embryonic stem cells, taken from days-old human embryos that are, typically, fertility clinic leftovers that would otherwise be destroyed, are at a developmental stage in which they can transform into any type of body cell. So flexible are they and so geared to multiply, that, with the appropriate scientific push in a particular direction, they could create replacement tissues to treat a variety of diseases. For example, it might be possible to give diabetics new insulin-producing cells or to provide nervous tissue, whether to help restore movement after spinal injury, or to restore cognitive function in cases of degenerative brain disease such as Alzheimer’s. The potential for embryonic stem-cell research to enhance human life seems limitless and medical scientists have expressed their delight at the Obama decision even as they’ve made clear their passionate dedication to the work and their determination to pursue it ethically.

And Obama, broad-minded and farseeing, but also a man of strong religious feeling, has made it clear that an ethical approach is essential. Whether this will satisfy the hard-line religious lobby, which was pandered to by Bush, is another matter. Despite the enormous humanitarian benefits that are likely to accrue from the application of the results of stem-cell research, there’s bound to be fierce opposition that will have to be intelligently and diplomatically handled.

What is interesting about Obama’s swift move on this issue, is that it seems to carry the hallmark of what he intends his presidency to be: broad-minded, liberal in the best sense, humane, far softer than the brittle and pugnacious leadership style of Bush, yet principled and strong where it matters.

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