Medical experts in Miami are hoping to speed up research using embryonic stem cells. Their work may lead to advances in treatment for spinal cord injuries, Alzheimer's disease and other illnesses.
Researchers at the University of Miami Stem Cell Institute responded quickly to President Obama's decision, which reversed a policy signed by former President George W. Bush. The school is the site of most stem-cell research in the area, and experts say the lifting of the ban on human embryonic stem cell work could open the door to more public funding.
Neurosurgeon Dalton Dietrich said he was excited by Monday's announcement at the White House.
"I have been waking up many mornings very excited about the possibility of using these cells to target many of the problems we see with stroke, brain trauma, spinal cord injury," he said.
Recently, the university conducted the first human clinical trial of a treatment for heart attack patients, which used adult stem cells harvested from the patient or donors. The study showed patients with the treatment had fewer side effects from the heart attack, and saw their heart and lung functions improve.
The ban signed by President Bush in 2001 made it nearly impossible to conduct such clinical trials using stem cells harvested from human embryos. Experts say those cells pose greater medical opportunities because they can be used in any part of the body, while adult stem cells often have limited functions.
The director of the Miami institute, Joshua Hare, said the lifting of the ban will allow researchers to compare various treatments with embryonic stem cells, and adult cells.
"We will be more scientifically free to look at all different kinds of cells and compare cells to one another. Our scientific opportunity is much much greater now," he said.
Critics of embryonic stem-cell research say it is unethical because a days-old human embryo is destroyed in the process.
Catholic Church leaders in Florida criticized President Obama's decision Monday, saying the research has yet to produce cures for chronic diseases. House Republican leader John Boehner said the move reversed important protections for human life.
In his announcement, President Obama said he respected those who strongly opposed research using embryonic stem cells, which would have normally been discarded by private fertility clinics. He said the country should pursue the scientific and medical opportunities posed by the research.
"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," he said.
In Miami, researchers said embryonic stem cells could begin to be used in about six months. Stem Cell Institute Director Joshua Hare said, no matter how his team proceeds, it will be keenly aware of the ethical concerns.
"We are a profession about the respect for life. So everything we do with embryonic stem cells will be done with the utmost of care, ethics and oversight," he said.
Under the president's decision, some of the $10 billion earmarked for health care spending in the recent stimulus bill is expected to finance embryonic stem-cell research.