Harvard scientists praise lifting of stem cell restrictions

4 min read

‘What a tremendous relief’

All across Cambridge and Boston, researchers gathered just before noon Monday (March 9) in the laboratories that constitute the collaborative known to the world as the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI), waiting to hear President Barack Obama announce to the world:

“Today, with the executive order I am about to sign, we will bring the change that so many scientists and researchers, doctors and innovators, patients and loved ones have hoped for, and fought for, these past eight years: We will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research. We will also 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.”

“What a tremendous relief!” exclaimed David Scadden, co-director of HSCI. “Science in this extremely promising area can now enter the playing field of ideas, opportunities, and competition for funding without the overlay of political constraint. It is the beginning of a new era for stem cell science and I hope the end of discovery being shackled back for political purposes.”

“Obviously, the excitement today is primarily, for me, about the science,” said Scadden’s co-director, Doug Melton, who watched the Obama speech in a lab lunchroom filled with staff, grad students, and postdoctoral fellows who gathered over a celebratory cake. “The freedom to use stem cells to explore ways to replenish our bodies, repair injury, and combat disease,” Melton said, “is what has always driven us, and today we learn that the government will support this quest rather than stand in the way. And I think patients everywhere will be cheering us on, imploring us to work faster, harder, and with all of our ability to find new treatments.”

Obama’s action Monday reverses an executive order signed on Aug. 9, 2001, by then-President George W. Bush. Bush’s order restricted the use of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research to a handful of stem cell lines that had been created prior to that date — lines that many researchers found to be of limited scientific value.

Using private funding shortly before the creation of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute in 2004, Melton created 17 stem cell lines that the institute distributed without charge to scientists around the world, partially sidestepping the federal ban. But the ban required extensive bookkeeping to ensure that no federally financed equipment or supplies were used by scientists doing embryonic stem cell work, and also made it impossible for scientists working on federal grants to even share ideas with embryonic stem cell researchers.

Melton said today that Obama’s reversing the order came as an “enormous relief.”

“It is a relief from the bureaucratic and accounting nightmares that have slowed our work, discouraged young scientists, and delayed progress for nearly eight years. It is a relief to know that we can now collaborate openly and freely with other scientists in our own University and elsewhere without restrictions on what equipment, data, or ideas can be shared. Science thrives when there is an open and collaborative exchange, not when there are artificial barriers, silos, constructed by the government,” he said.

During his remarks before reversing the Bush executive order, Obama spoke about the importance of ensuring that scientific issues are decided on the basis of scientific facts. “Promoting science isn’t just about providing resources — it’s also about protecting free and open inquiry,” he said. “It’s about letting scientists … do their jobs free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient — especially when it’s inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda — and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.”

“This day,” said Melton, “marks an important change in spirit, in our national outlook. I think sometimes of how Aug. 9, 2001, was a dark day for science and for America because political ideology was used to define how science should be done. It’s terrific to hear our nation’s leader stating forcibly that science should guide policies, scientific facts should inform our thinking and decisions. Science as a way of knowing is a very powerful tool for good and it is liberating to hear that science, not political ideology, will guide the Obama administration in its decisions. I was always uncomfortable being put in the position of being an opponent of my own government, of being set up in opposition to what the previous administration implied was an ethical approach to science when in fact it was not an ethical decision made on 9 August, 2001, but a political decision. I am deeply happy to say that those days are done,” Melton said.