After waiting years for changes to the state’s restrictive stem cell research laws, University researchers are content waiting a few more weeks before starting to study the stem cell lines now available to them.

Last month, state voters passed Proposal 2, a ballot initiative that loosened the state’s restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. Since then, University researchers have been busy planning wide expansions of research projects.

Prof. Sue O’Shea, director of the University’s Center for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research, said she hopes the expanded research will begin in early 2009. In preparation, a new lab and microscope have to be put in place for deriving the stem cell lines.

“We’re really excited to be able to do research,” O’Shea said. “Right away we wanted to start getting the paperwork going and start making new embryonic stem cell lines.”

O’Shea said University scientists hope to derive stem cells from embryos with neurological diseases, like Huntington’s chorea.

The proposal, which officially takes effect Dec. 19, will allow University researchers access to hundreds of donated embryos that otherwise would have been discarded from the University’s medical system. Last month’s vote overturned a 1978 law banning the practice of obtaining stem cell lines from discarded embryos from fertility clinics.

LSA senior Carly Collins, who does research on epilepsy in a neurology lab led by Medical School Associate Prof. Jack Parent, said the passage of Proposal 2 would enable researchers to do more extensive work studying the progression of diseases.

Though Proposal 2 doesn’t have an immediate impact on the research she does now, Collins said scientists in her lab approach their daily tasks with increased optimism ever since Proposal 2 passed.

“Every time we go down a path thinking we’ll find something we’ve been stopped,” she said. “Now, those barriers have been taken down, and we can take our research into a totally new realm of possibilities.”

As part of Parent’s team, Collins studies epilepsy in rats to determine which cells cause the specific problems that contribute to epileptic seizures. If they identify those cells, she said, researchers could try to use embryonic stem cells to replace the damaged cells.

“By replacing these cells that are causing these deformities, we can cure epilepsy,” she said.

But before any new research can begin, scientists must get the green light from the University’s Embryonic Stem Cell Research Oversight committee, a group of physicians, scientists, lawyers and ethicists who examine all human embryonic stem cell research at the University to ensure that it is ethical and beneficial to the scientific community.

Researchers must also seek approval from the Institutional Review Board, which examines all research dealing with human subjects and ensures that the rights of the subjects are met. In this case, the human subjects in question are the embryo donors, who have the right to informed consent and anonymity.

No research can go forward until both committees show approval, a process that typically takes months, said Robin Stephenson, director of information for life sciences at the University.

“It’s certainly not just a rubber stamp. It’s a real approval process,” she said. “It’s really quite lengthy because we have to be sure that all regulations are followed.”

Sean Morrison, director of the University’s Center for Stem Cell Biology, said the informed consent documents for new stem cell research projects are now being drafted and will be sent to the IRB later this month.

Morrison said the approval process was proof before Election Day that the research would be tightly monitored, contrary to campaign ads from opposition groups.

“Far from allowing completely unregulated research, within the University now, the first step is not to start the research, but to spend months going through the regulatory process,” he said.

President-elect Barack Obama has said he will overturn the federal ban on federally funded human embryonic stem cell research when he becomes president. Morrison said he expects the move to be one of Obama’s first once he takes office.

Had state voters not passed Proposal 2, University researchers wouldn’t be able to compete for newly appropriated federal funding for stem cell research.

“Over the next couple of years I expect that millions of dollars in new investment will flow into the state of Michigan as a result of Proposal 2, allowing us to compete for the money that the federal government and private foundations will invest in this area,” Morrison said.

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