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New Administration May Boost Stem Cell Research in San Diego

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Aired 4/19/09

In 2001, President George W. Bush told the nation he would place strict limits on the use of embryonic stem cells for medical research. As Barack Obama takes office he is expected to remove those restrictions... and do it quickly. That's good news to San Diego scientists who have devoted their careers to stem cell research. KPBS Health Reporter Tom Fudge has more.

Many people who oppose abortion also oppose the harvesting of stem cells from newly formed embryos. And President Bush cited his moral convictions when he put the breaks on funding for embryonic stem cell research. Candidate, and now President-elect Barack Obama has made it clear that he intends to reverse Bush's stem cell policy by executive order.

Bob Klein is chairman of the board of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine. He says he spoke with Obama less than two weeks ago, and Obama said to him, we're going to get this done.

Klein: "So whether it's heart disease, diabetes or cancer, we will have science that is not suppressed by religious ideology, but science that's dedicated to serving patients."

Klein's institute was created after Californians agreed to fund stem cell research under prop 71.
The Bush policy didn't ­halt federal funding of all embryonic stem cell research. But federal funds could only be applied to the 21 cell lines that had already been harvested and developed. That meant embryonic cells were hard to come by. And even researchers with access to those cell lines say they suffered from being either genetically atypical or not diverse enough.

Evan Snyder is director of the Stem Cell Research Center at San Diego's Burnham Institute. He says the handcuffs on federal funding forced his labs, and others, to segregate their funding. Any equipment or labs or staff, that were funded with federal money, had to be physically separate from any staffer or tool involved with embryonic research.

Snyder: "Setting up the stem cell equivalent of a Kosher kitchen is exactly what we've done. You know, in a Kosher kitchen you can mix meat and milk. Same thing."

Stem cells come from many different sources in the body, and they can come from adults. But Snyder says embryonic cells are still the gold standard. He says no other stem cells are as flexible or malleable.

Snyder: "And these are cells that don't yet know whether they're to be living in the heart, or the nervous system, or the bone marrow. Very shortly after that, these cells do start to acquire their address."

Stem cells that have yet to learn their address are viewed as vital to the discovery of new therapies and drugs. In theory, a stem cell can be turned into any kind of human cell. This means you can create new cells to replace those that were damaged or destroyed by disease. Being able to create human tissues in the lab also makes it possible to test drugs in a way that's superior to animal testing.

Scientists may praise the lifting of restrictions on embryonic stem cell funding. But the moral qualms that caused President Bush to oppose harvesting stem cells from embryos have not gone away. While scientists call these early-stage embryos blastocysts, Jimmy Akin, the director of communication for Catholic Answers Action, calls them something else. Human beings.

Akin: "So the proposition of creating hundreds of thousands or millions of human lives for the purpose of medical experimentation is a humanitarian tragedy of staggering proportions."

But Larry Goldstein, the director of the UCSD Stem Cell Program, disagrees.

Goldstein: "As a scientist, and as a person, I've thought about the moral and ethical issues here. And personally I do not believe that destroying blastocysts that are frozen and are not going to be used for reproductive purposes… I do not believe that that's wrong."

Goldstein can not say how much faster stem cell research will progress if the Bush restrictions are lifted. He'll only say that inadequate funding slows you down, while adequate funding speeds things up. Tom Fudge, KPBS News.

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