In 2001 George Bush signed an executive order banning federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, except for those lines that were already established. As a result such research ground to a halt in the US.

While the order was presented as a compromise, the effect was chilling in its application. No researcher receiving federal dollars (even for a separate project) could do embryonic stem cell research, except on the approved lines.  Institutions could not risk losing federal grants and so had to purge themselves of any banned research. The approved lines did not turn out to be as useful as was originally claims, and they became progressively obsolete as new techniques were being developed through state and private funding.

It is impossible to measure the effect that Bush’s ban had on ultimate scientific progress in this area. It is not just that we lost eight years – expertise in a cutting-edge scientific area can be a tenuous cultural and institutional thread, once broken it is difficult to recreate.

We will hopefully have a chance to find out. It was expected that one of the first measures of the Obama administration would be to lift the federal ban. In fact, I am a bit surprised it has not happened already. But it seems it soon will – insiders are saying that Obama plans to lift the ban soon.

Embryonic stem cells (ESC) are cells taken from recently fertilized eggs that are still in the embryo stage. They are the most totipotent cells known – they have the potential to turn into any cell type in the body. For this reason they hold great research promise. Possible applications might include replacing cells in a diseased or damaged organ to repair lost function. For example, if motor neurons are dying in patients with ALS (Lou Gerhigs disease), stem cells might be capable of replacing the lost motor neurons and halting or even reversing the disease. Right now there is no other technology that can even theoretically accomplish this.

The ethical controversy, of course, is that embryonic stem cells must be harvested from human embryos. It is this concern that led to the Federal ban under Bush. This controversy is not likely to go away.

Of course, the promise of stem cell therapy has not yet been achieved. This is a research program into a new and highly complex technology. It is still too early to predict how it will eventually pan out. That is the nature of research. Of course the only way we will find out is by increasing our knowledge.

One of the most interesting developments in recent years in stem cell research is the ability to convert an adult-derived stem cell into one that has the features of an embryonic stem cell. In 2007 researchers from the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine at UCLA published a paper in which they demonstrated that they could convert adult derived mouse fibroblast cells into stem cells with feature of embryonic stem cells by changing only four genes. This was far fewer than imagined, making the technology seem highly plausible.

Just last month Boston University School of Medicine researchers published that they could accomplish the four gene changes with a single viral vector, rather than using multiple vectors – simplifying the process.

This research has the potential to make the embryonic stem cell controversy moot (in a way). If adult-derived cells could be turned into stem cells with all the potential of embryonic derived cells then that would obviate the need to harvest cells from embryos.

Of course, ironically, these developments would not have been possible without embryonic stem cell research itself. Even if adult-derived substitutes can be made, there is simply no way to predict what we will not discover (or which discoveries will be greatly delayed) by banning a certain avenue of research.

Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society, the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also contributes every Sunday to The Rogues Gallery, the official blog of the SGU.