Shares in stem cell companies soared yesterday after US President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order ending the eight-year ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

The President added: “we will vigorously support scientists who pursue this research, and we will aim for America to lead the world in the discoveries it one day may yield.”

Under the previous policy, signed by President George W Bush in 2000, funding by the National Institutes of health (NIH) was limited to research involving just 21 embryonic stem cell lines created before 2001.
The President has given the NIH 120 days to draw up ethical guidelines covering which work will receive federal funding, and he told the signing ceremony that these will be strict and rigorously enforced, “because we cannot over tolerate misuse or abuse.” He acknowledged that there is still opposition to stem cell research and said that these opinions diverse full respect, but added that “a false choice” had often been presented between science and faith, and that “corrupting, shielding or shying away from the facts science lays are benefits nobody.”

The American government has not only a role but a responsibility to keep the country at the forefront of medical science, he stressed, and added: “as a person of faith, I believe we are called o to care for each other and work to ease human suffering.”

While Pres Obama’s action overturns a previous Executive Order signed by Pres Bush, it does not reverse the 1996 Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which prohibits the use of taxpayers’ money to support research “in which human embryos are created, destroyed, discarded, or knowingly be subjected to risk of injury or death greater than allowed for research on fetuses in utero.” This amendment is debated and upheld each year in Congress, and Pres Obama reportedly believes that whether it continues or not should be for Congress to decide.

But the National Right to Life Committee believes that the Executive Order “sets the stage for an attack on” Dickey-Wicker, said Douglas Johnson, a spokesman for the group. “Any member of Congress who votes for legislation to repeal this law is voting to allow federal funding of human embryo farms, created through the use of human cloning,” he added.

However, the President’s action was welcomed by Jim Greenwood, chief executive of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). Research on both adult and embryonic stem cells holds great promise to produce new therapies and possibly cures for cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, spinal cord injuries and other life-threatening diseases and conditions, and will also further the development of cell-based therapies by leading to greater scientific understanding of cell differentiation and proliferation, he said.

Mr Greenwood added however that for the industry to succeed in these goals, “we need to ensure that we have public policies in place which encourage innovation by protecting intellectual property, fully funding and appropriately staffing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and providing adequate reimbursement.”

- Pres Obama also announced yesterday that he was signing a Presidential Memorandum directing the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision-making. The aim of the policy will be “to ensure that, in this new Administration, we base our public policies on the soundest science, that we appoint scientific advisors based on their credentials and experience - not their politics or ideology - and that we are open and honest with the American people about the science behind our decisions,” he said.