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Obama to lift stem cell restrictions

President Barack Obama will lift controversial restrictions on human stem cell research and sign a pledge to take politics out of science, the White House says, a clear repudiation of the approach taken by his predecessor George W Bush.

world Updated: Mar 09, 2009 20:15 IST

President Barack Obama will lift controversial restrictions on human stem cell research on Monday and sign a pledge to take politics out of science, the White House says, a clear repudiation of the approach taken by his predecessor George W Bush.

The decision, which fulfills a campaign promise, pits Obama against many religious conservatives who oppose such research because they say it involves destroying life.

Aides said Obama would not dictate details about how stem cell research should be overseen but would give the National Institutes of Health 120 days to come up with guidelines.

Researchers and advocates are gathering for a White House ceremony at which Obama will make the announcement, said Melody Barnes, director of Obama's domestic policy council. Several prominent scientists hailed the decision.

Obama will also sign a pledge to "restore scientific integrity in governmental decision making."

Some scientists accused Bush of sacrificing scientific research and subverting scientific findings to appease his conservative political and religious base, not only on stem cells but on climate change policy, energy and reproductive and end of life issues.

Bush aides denied this but said they had the political mandate to shape policy.

Dr. Harold Varmus, a former NIH director who is also president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and an adviser to Obama, said Obama's actions would return U.S. stances to where they were pre-Bush.

"This memorandum will reinforce statements that the president has already made on the importance of science and technology in our society," Varmus told reporters.

"Public policy must be guided by sound scientific advice."

The NIH would take into consideration guidelines from the National Academy of Sciences and the International Society for Stem Cell Research, Varmus said.

"This is not a partisan issue," he added. Staunchly conservative Republicans such as Utah Senator Orrin Hatch support lifting restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research and voted several times in Congress to do so in a bill Bush then vetoed.

"Immoral and unethical"

Bush and others argued that it is immoral and unethical to experiment on human embryos because it involves destroying cells that could give rise to human life.

But supporters say it is unethical not to advance medical research, especially using embryos from fertility clinics that were destined for destruction anyway.

Kansas Senator Sam Brownback issued a statement of dissent: "If an embryo is a life, and I believe strongly that it is life, then no government has the right to sanction their destruction for research purposes."

He argued that other sources of stem cells that do not come from human embryos offer as much promise.

Stem cell experts agree that all types of stem cells should be developed, but it is not clear which offer the best route to a new type of therapy called regenerative medicine, in which it is hoped doctors can replace brain cells destroyed by Alzheimer's disease, reverse genetic defects such as cystic fibrosis, and regrow severed spinal cords.