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Researchers excited about possible stem cell reversal

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Stem cell cultures
Stem cell cultures are placed under a microscope in a lab at the Reeve-Irvine Research Center at the University of California Irvine August 25, 2006 in Irvine, Calif.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

The executive order banning the use of government funds to study new embryonic stem cell lines has been in place since 2001. President Bush signed the order because of his concerns that human embryos were being destroyed. 

The federal restrictions have not been popular with most scientists. So the prospect of a reversal is welcome news.

"It's a change in attitude. It's obviously doing something that's pro-science instead of trying to inhibit science. And I think that's as advantageous as anything," says Dan Kaufman,  associate director of the Stem Cell Institute at the University of Minnesota. 

Scientists have learned to live with the rules they've been given, Kaufman says. But if the federal ban is lifted, medical advances could happen much faster, he says.

"That's a thrilling prospect to patients suffering from debilitating conditions that could be helped by stem cell discoveries." 

Stem cells can be used to grow many kinds of tissue in the body. Embryonic stem cells in particular have shown the most adaptability or the most promise. For example, if you had a damaged heart, one way doctors might treat you in the future is by injecting embryonic stem cells that could repair the damage. These types of cells could even be used to treat paralysis. 

"It could mean the difference between someone who has sensation and not. It could be the difference between recovering bladder function," according to John Tschida, Vice President of Public Affairs and Research at Courage Center,  a Minneapolis-based rehabilitation facility that serves many clients with paralysis. 

Tschida is careful not to suggest that stem cell discoveries will one day cure paralysis. It's too early to know that, he says. But it seems probable to him that the research could lead to treatments that vastly improve the quality of patient's lives.     The same could be true for Type 1 diabetics, says Dr. Michael Gonzalez-Campoy, a diabetic specialists with a practice in Eagan. 

"For those individuals the ability to make insulin is huge. And if we were able to restore their insulin producing ability, that would change lives forever."

Only about five percent of people who have diabetes are Type 1. That still represents thousands of people who could benefit from more robust embryonic stem cell research, Gonzalez-Campoy says.         Still no one is assuming a reversal of the federal funding ban will fix everything. 

Dan Kaufman with the University of Minnesota says having more stem cell lines to work with would be great, but it won't mean much if lawmakers don't increase overall funding for biomedical research. 

"You could have all the cell lines in the world approved to work on, but if there are no funds to do it and there's sort of an attitude that this is not something that we should be doing then it's pretty inhibiting." 

During the presidential campaign President-elect Obama suggested he would double the budget for the National Institutes of Health which funds scientific research. But that was before the nation's economic meltdown.