Stem Cell Research One Year Later: Changes and Challenges

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On March 9, 2009, President Obama signed the executive order “Removing Barriers to Responsible Scientific Research Involving Human Stem Cells.” With soaring rhetoric, he promised to untie the ropes that limited such research for the eight years prior. 

But there’s a catch. An amendment barring federal funding for research on human embryos still stands.  We wondered what's changed since the ink dried on President Obama’s promise, so we asked one of Northwestern’s leading stem cell researchers. 

Jack Kessler, MD, is the Ken and Ruth Davee Professor of Stem Cell Biology and chair of the Department of Neurology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Dr. Kessler's research once centered on understanding and treating nerve disorders like those arising from diabetes, but when a skiing accident paralyzed his then-15-year-old daughter, he refocused his research on using stem cells to treat spinal cord injuries. Since then, his daughter has entered medical school and his research has made some remarkable advances. 

Jack Kessler, MDJack Kessler, MDWhat did President Obama’s executive order about stem cell research change?
Theoretically, the new policy means that now scientists can use any approved stem cell line in government-sponsored research. But let’s look at why he had to do this. Long before President George W. Bush was elected, Congress passed a bill forbidding federal funding for research that uses human embryos.  Scientists turned to private funding, from industry and groups like the Juvenile Diabetes Association, to obtain stem cells from fertilized human eggs. 

President George W. Bush issued an executive order that limited researchers using federal funding to only a small set of existing stem cells. The federal government is by far the largest source of funding for research, so this was very restrictive. There were also problems with so many of the allowed cell lines created by old technology and compromised by other issues.

President Obama removed this very specific limitation about which stem cells lines we could use, but the Congressional bill still stands. 

Has the new policy made a difference?
There has been some positive change. Practical, which I’ll get to in a minute, and intangible change too.  What do I mean by intangible? Think of it this way: now young, bright, talented scientists just getting started feel confident that they can make a career out of stem cell research. Before, many of the best would go into other fields where funding was more available and less at the whim of politics. 

For example, when California set aside $3 billion to fund stem cell research it had a very large impact on the field. It was not an accident that last year, five students graduated from my lab and four moved to California.

On the practical side, change is slower-coming.  There was no system set up to approve new stem cell lines until quite recently.

How are stem cell lines approved?
The National Academy of Science created a very specific set of guidelines in the 1990s about how to create stem cell lines that are morally and ethically acceptable. One by one now, all the lines are being reviewed to make sure the stem cells were ethically obtained. 

Was the policy change enough?
It’s certainly an improvement.  Still, if we learned anything in the Middle Ages, it’s that science is controversial and people are afraid of new things. But if we let fear rule – the world’s still going to be flat.

One of the things that I always hasten to remind people is that scientists operate under an extraordinary series of guidelines, reviews, and regulations. Anything we want to do goes through a series of reviews to ensure we follow the strictest moral and ethical codes. Our government and great institutions like Northwestern have created successful safeguards.

I work in this field, like most scientists in any field, because I want to save lives. I respect other people’s beliefs and rights. It hurts when strangers call you a murderer. When we develop new therapies that will save the lives of these strangers’ mothers, husbands – and especially their sons or daughters – they won’t turn their backs on using them.

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