In a move with real implications for the rest of the world, US President Barack Obama has fulfilled his campaign promise and lifted the curbs placed by his predecessor, George W. Bush, on embryonic stem cell research.
The Democratic president this week signed an executive order reversing a policy that critics say has hampered the fight against grave diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and diabetes.
"The ban restricted the ability of US researchers to be globally competitive in the field of embryonic stem cell research. The fact that researchers in the US will now enjoy the benefits of federal funding (where they previously had to rely on funding from the private sector), will once again allow scientific freedom and potentially promote faster progress in this field ," said Dr Carola Niesler, Stem Cell Researcher, Department of Biochemistry, University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Benefits for SA
Niesler said the lifting of the ban may benefit South Africans in more ways than one. "As successful stem cell therapies are developed and tested in countries such as the US, as well as in Europe and Asia, they will become available to the rest of the world. This could potentially provide improved, and possibly even cheaper, alternatives to current therapies for a whole range of diseases."
Niesler pointed out that the stem cell research environment in South Africa is currently relatively unregulated. "Perhaps the current turnaround in the US (which underscores the importance of this field) will give new impetus for our government and stakeholders to revisit this issue and establish appropriate stem cell regulations within SA," she said.
A new front
Warning that the ban had meant scientists deserted the US for less restrictive research environments, Obama pointed out that "medical miracles" come about only through painstaking research, and rejected the "false choice" between sound
science and moral values.
"When government fails to make these investments, opportunities are missed. Promising avenues go unexplored," he said at the White House.
Niesler said the revolutionary potential is clearly there and that she has no doubt that stem cell-related therapies will become increasingly common.
"However, adequate regulation, as well as a critical mass of experts in the field, is required to monitor both research and clinical application (this is lacking in SA). Furthermore, the general public needs better access to stem cells (the development of a Public Umbilical Cord Blood Bank in South Africa would be a start)," Niesler said.
Basing policy on science
Addressing an audience of US lawmakers, scientists including three Nobel laureates, and religious leaders, Obama also issued a presidential memorandum "restoring scientific integrity to government decision
The memorandum marked another break from claims that Bush intervened for partisan political reasons in federal science in areas such as climate change, endangered species and family planning.
Obama ordered the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to ensure that "we base our public policies on the soundest science", and appoint scientific advisors based on expertise and "not
their politics or ideology".
He vowed that he would not permit stem cell research to stray into the wilder bounds of science such as human cloning, which he said "has no place in our society, or any society".
But there was still fierce fire from social conservatives and right-to-life groups, who back research on cells taken from human adults rather than embryos.
US Catholic Cardinal Justin Rigali called Obama's announcement "a sad victory of politics over science and ethics".
On the other hand, the Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, a United Church of Christ minister and a professor at Chicago Theological Seminary, said: “There is an ethical imperative to relieve suffering and promote healing. This is good policy for a religiously pluralistic society that cares about human suffering and the relief of human suffering.”
Reeve Foundation President Peter Wilderotter said: "With a stroke of his pen, President Obama acknowledged the will of the majority of Americans and harnessed the power of the federal government
to move research forward.
"By removing politics from science, President Obama has freed researchers to explore these remarkable stem cells, learn from them and possibly develop effective therapies using them."
Obama also alluded to religion in announcing the changes, saying, “As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity
and will to pursue this research, and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly.”
(Sapa-AP-AFP/Health24, March 2009)