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U. Iowa Scientists See Stem-cell Hope With Obama

This story was written by Katie Hanson, The Daily Iowan

University of Iowa researcher Nicholas Zavazava received a phone call from the Barack Obama campaign a few days before Nov. 4, but the voice on other end wasn't an automated message.

The caller was a real person who wanted to know more about Zavazava and his work with stem cells.

"[The campaign] wanted to assure potential voters the campaign was committed to stem-cell research," Zavazava said. "They indicated, 'We are going to be supportive of what you're doing.' "

Obama's position on embryonic stem-cell research was "one of many reasons" he snagged Zavazava's vote. With Obama's election, Zavazava is confident he will be able to instigate research that has been stalled under President Bush's administration.

Scientists receiving federal funds, such as those from the National Institutes of Health, are limited to 21 stem cell lines created before 2001, when Bush limited funding for embryonic stem cells, said John Engelhardt, a UI professor of anatomy and cell biology.

Zavazava has to perform the bulk of his research on mouse stem cells, and UI exercise science Associate Professor Gina Schatteman said she doesn't do a lot of embryonic stem-cell work because "it is just too difficult."

"[Better] lines are out there," she said. "Now, all of these lines generated by companies could become available."

UI Pediatrics Associate Professor Frederick Goldman said embryonic stem cells may lose their taboo status if Obama issues an executive order to lift the ban.

Goldman said people are confused by embryonic stem-cell production; many don't know fertilized cells are stacked in freezers around the country for parents attempting in-vitro fertilization.

"There's irony to the whole situation," he said. "[The Bush administration] doesn't mind if embryos are destroyed by throwing them down the sink, but they don't want them to be used for scientific research to help people."

The Obama administration may not provide funding specifically for stem cells given the current economic crisis, but ending the ban will create a more open environment for stem-cell researchers to file for grants, Engelhardt said.

Even grant money would be an improvement - in 2003, the NIH allotted $25 million for stem-cell research for the entire country, which Zavazava said wasn't enough.

"That's nothing for a country like the United States," he said.

The dearth of federal money has driven researchers to such countries as Singapore and the United Kingdom, which provide more support on stem cells, Zavazava said.

"We're so far behind that other countries already have the infrastructure," Schatteman said, noting that lifting the ban "will slow the tide a lot" and keep scientists here.

More support for embryonic stem cells will benefit research with adult stem cells as well, she said.

"Right now, we're working with what we have rather than the best," Schatteman said. "When we reach a dead end with adult stem cells, we would have the option to try embryonic stem cells."

Engelhardt is working with pluripotent stem cells, which act like embryonic stem cells but come from adult skin. He said researchers don't know the capability of these cells without comparing them to "the gold standard - true embryonic stem cells."

With a wave of activity in all types of stem cells, Goldman said, the wispy promise of stem cell-based disease treatment may become tangible.

Despite science's potential to use stem cells, Zavazava said it's up to Obama to make the first move.

"We will hold him to his promise and see how much is going to be implemented," Zavazava sad. "But I have a lot of confidence he will."

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