President Obama followed through yesterday on his plan to ease restrictions on stem cell use in research funded by taxpayer money. National Institutes of Health leader Francis Collins announced that the organization has approved 13 new lines of embryonic stem cells for research, and will consider 96 more lines for approval.
In March, Obama lifted President Bush’s restrictions on federally-funded research on embryonic stem cells, which limited research to a handful of lines created before August 2001. Obama could not on his own reverse the Congressional ruling that forbids scientists from using taxpayer money to create new stem cell lines from embryos, but the ruling allows researchers to use cell lines created by others in an ethical fashion. The NIH set up a panel to decide which stem cell lines met strict ethical restrictions. The cells, for instance, have to have been made using an embryo donated from leftovers at fertility clinics, and parents must have signed detailed consent forms [Reuters].
About $21 million in projects had been on hold, waiting for the NIH’s ruling on “ethical” stem cell lines. And that hasn’t been the only lab headache created by the political divisiveness over stem cells; scientists have gone to great length to keep stem cell-related research away from their federally-funded projects. “You can imagine what it meant not to be able to carry a pipette from one room to another,” said Ali H. Brivanlou, a researcher at Rockefeller University. “They even had to repaint the walls to ensure no contamination by federal funds” [The New York Times].
The reasons to do stem research, of course, are oft-repeated. Embryonic stem cells can morph into any cell of the body, and scientists hope to harness them so they can create replacement tissue to treat, possibly even cure, a variety of diseases, from diabetes to Parkinson’s to spinal cord injury [AP]. And recent research by Shinya Yamanaka that showed the possibility of reverting mature cells back to the embryonic state raised hopes of doing this work while circumventing the contentious moral fights over the destruction of embryos.
Still, scientists say there’s variability between how different lines perform in the lab, so opening a greater selection will enhance research. Obama’s plan to do just that looks like the campaign for broader research will keeping moving forward—even plans to reject it, like the University of Nebraska’s vote last week over whether to restrict itself to lines available under the Bush rules, ended in defeat.
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