NEW YORK // Jim Langevin, a Democratic congressman, was paralysed at the age of 16 by an accidental gunshot from a policeman, giving him a personal stake in any scientific breakthrough that might arise from embryonic stem cell research. And so Mr Langevin, now 44, was jubilant when Barack Obama this week signed an executive order lifting federal funding restrictions on the use of embryonic stem cells. He has pushed for such a move ever since he was elected to the House of Representatives in 2000.
"This is an extremely exciting development," said Mr Langevin. "I, along with countless others, have long hoped for the day when we would again support the promise of embryonic stem cell research." The race is now on to find cures for some of society's most debilitating conditions. Mr Langevin's guests at Congress have included Michael J Fox, the actor who suffers from Parkinson's disease, and the late Dana Reeve, whose husband, the movie actor Christopher Reeve, played Superman and was paralysed in a horse-riding accident before he died.
Opponents, including conservative Christians, say the research is unethical because it involves the destruction of human embryos. But scientists say they can use stem cells from days-old embryos, which are discarded by fertility clinics, to produce any cell in the body and develop cures for neurological and other diseases. "Signing this executive order sends a clear signal around the world that our nation supports research based on science, not politics," said Mr Langevin.
"I look forward to working with the Obama administration to find cures to some of life's most chronic and challenging diseases and conditions." American scientists also breathed a collective sigh of relief over their greater freedom from ideological and religious opposition. Limits imposed by Mr Obama's predecessor, George W Bush, restricted their work with embryos, forcing them to watch other centres of research, such as Australia, Israel, Singapore and the UK, forge ahead.
Scientists also accused Mr Bush's administration of censoring politically inconvenient findings, including those about climate warming and the environment. Mr Obama's message for a new era was clear: follow science, not politics or religion. "Our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values," said Mr Obama, adding that the executive order was "about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology".
Jan Nolta, who directs the stem cell research programme at the University of California in Davis, said she was hopeful new therapies could be developed within the next couple of years. She pointed to a California-based company called Geron Corp, which has been given the go-ahead for the first human trial on spinal cord patients for a drug containing embryonic stem cells. "Geron is looking for patients and at least two other companies have gone to the Food and Drug Administration for permission for trials. We should see by next year what the effects will be," she said from Davis. "We're thrilled and hopeful in this new era and things should move ahead in a dramatically accelerated fashion."
But raising funds for research and winning back scientists lured abroad by better salaries would be difficult in a recession-hit economy, she said. Instead of cracking open the champagne this week to celebrate Mr Obama's executive order, she and her colleagues were busy writing the latest in a series of grant requests. Mr Obama's move allows scientists to use hundreds of new embryonic stem cell lines after Mr Bush had limited them to just 21 pre-existing lines in 2001. Dr Nolta's programme hopes to get four new stem cell lines as soon as the National Institutes of Health updates its guidelines.
Opponents vowed to continue their fight. "Obama opens the door to embryo farms," the National Right to Life Committee said in a statement. "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," said Sam Brownback, a Kansas senator. The major religions differ in their stance on when a developing embryo becomes a human being with a soul, accounting for their different levels of acceptance. Catholic and evangelical Christians take a much harder line against embryonic stem cell research than mainstream Protestantism, Judaism and most strands of Islam.
Some opponents argue that new developments, such as reprogrammed human skin cells, also offered unlimited properties. But Dr Nolta said it was original research on embryonic stem cells that led to such discoveries. For the time being, at least, polls show that many religious Americans appear to back Mr Obama, who said: "As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering."