An about-face on stem cells

New federal grants, less red tape likely with reversal of Bush ban

Obama's Transition

December 01, 2008|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,

One of Barack Obama's first acts as president is expected to be a reversal of the Bush administration's restrictions on federal funding for research on human embryonic stem cells.

Maryland scientists say that's good news because it will uncork the nation's largest source of funding for promising medical research using hundreds of new cell lines, including many offering clues to the nature of genetically based diseases. Those cells are now off-limits for federal grants.

"Taking the largest funder off the table had an impact. Putting it back will certainly have a positive impact," said Dr. Paul Fishman, director of the Alzheimer's Center at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Researchers and their institutions are also hopeful that lifting the Bush administration's ban would end a logistical nightmare. Fear of violating the federal edict forced researchers to keep everything from pipettes to buildings paid for with federal dollars separate from anything and anyone involved with stem cell lines not approved for federal funding.

"It's going to make a huge difference," said Dr. Chi Dang, vice dean for research at the Johns Hopkins University's Institute for Cell Engineering. "Especially if I'm an investigator working on both types of cell lines, I have to be very careful. ... It's been a nightmare for some institutions."

But no one expects any funding floodgates to open. Celebration in Maryland research labs has been tempered by an awareness that the research budget of the National Institutes of Health has been essentially flat since 2003.

Until the president and Congress provide more money, stem cell researchers will have to elbow other investigators aside to win more of the available NIH money, said Story Landis, who heads the NIH Stem Cell Task Force. "We would increase funding as appropriate given the quality of the science in those proposals," she said. But until Jan. 20, she stressed, the Bush policies remain in force.

Scientists believe human stem cells hold medical promise because they are able to transform themselves, with proper prodding, into virtually any type of tissue.

Cultured in a lab, they could grow to form new skin, bone or other body tissues to repair the donor's own traumatic injuries. Or, injected into the body they could replace faulty tissues responsible for such diseases as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's or diabetes.

Stem cells derived from "adult" tissues, such as skin or umbilical cord blood, have not been controversial. They've shown some promise and are eligible for federal funds.

But the derivation of stem cells from very young human embryos has drawn objections from many who believe the resulting destruction of the embryos is immoral. For some, it makes no difference that the embryos - created during in vitro reproduction purposes but no longer needed - were to be thrown away.

Those concerns led to the restrictions on federal funding that Obama has pledged to ease while retaining what his campaign described as "high ethical standards" for such research.

Until the NIH develops its own ethical rules, all work with embryos must comply with professional and institutional guidelines ensuring, among other things, that embryo donors gave informed consent and received no financial incentives.

Despite its promise, human embryonic stem cell research has received relatively modest federal funding. Of $698 million approved by NIH for all stem cell research this year, only $41 million has gone to work with human embryonic stem cells, limited to just 21 approved cell lines.

By comparison, research using nonembryonic human stem cells received $203 million in NIH funding this year. The balance goes to nonhuman and cord blood stem cell research.

"The greatest scientific engine in the history of man is the NIH, with a $28 billion yearly budget. And for eight years it has been largely on the sidelines in one of the most promising areas" of medical research, said Bernard Siegel of the Florida-based Genetics Policy Institute, an advocacy organization promoting stem cell research.

A number of states, among them New Jersey, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Illinois and New York, have moved into the breach with their own tax dollars. The largest has been California, approving $3 billion over 10 years. Maryland's Stem Cell Initiative plans to spend $219 million over 10 years.

Some critics of embryonic stem cell research argue that successes with adult stem cells have curbed the need for work with embryonic cells. But scientists say it's too soon to reach that conclusion.

"I think we're going to see different forms of stem cells used for different clinical purposes," Fishman said. "It's scientifically naive to think we'll end up with one strategy and one type of cell."

But before researchers can benefit from new federal dollars, the Obama administration will have to clear at least two barriers to federal funding.

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