With US president George Bush about to leave the White House, researchers in that country who have chafed under White House restrictions on stem cell research and their supporters are beginning to push for the restrictions to be lifted by the next administration.
In a column in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle, two Washington pundits with the liberal Center for American Progress called Bush's ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research morally hollow and said they are hampering American scientists.
Recent revelations that many of the Bush-approved stem cell colonies were obtained in clear violation of widely recognized ethics rules have now laid bare the moral hollowness of Bush's approach. At least five of the 21 cell colonies approved for federal funding by virtue of their having been derived before Bush's 2001 address came from embryos that were "donated" by women who were either not told anything about what they were agreeing to or were expressly told that their cells would not be preserved as regenerating cell cultures. Other colonies were obtained with lesser but still troubling ethics lapses. Having learned of those failures of informed consent, at least six of the nation's leading academic stem cell centers - four of them in California - are now reconsidering whether to allow those cells in their research protocols.
The two column writers, Rick Weiss and Jonathon Moreno want not only for the Bush funding ban to be lifted, but for there to be a congressional probe into the impact of the ban. "It is time to move beyond the Bush era of stem cell research, with its faux moral high ground and simplistic reliance on a TV broadcast date," the two write.
Seven years ago last Friday, Bush used his first televised national address to announce that from that day forward, the American government would not fund embryonic stem cell research on ethical grounds. Conservative religious ground applauded the move. Stem cells lines collected before the TV address were exempted.
Embryonic stem cells are considered the best by stem cell researchers, who hope to use them to reverse degenerative diseases such as Alzheimers or Parkinson's.
I attended the annual meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research in Toronto a couple of years ago, at which several US researchers commented that Bush's ban did not stop the research it was targeting, but did make it much less efficient. The research was able to continue with state government funding, but because of Bush's ban no equipment bought with state money -- from microscopes to paper clips -- could be used for federally funded research. That, they said, meant duplicating efforts and endless paperwork to prove no cross-over of funding -- making their work much less efficient and giving an advantage to researchers in countries, such as Canada, without the same restrictions.
It will be interesting to watch what happens after the next election. The candidates, however, have shown little interest in talking about the issue so far.