Stem cell researchers celebrated last week as the National Institutes of Health finalized a set of guidelines determining the limits of embryonic stem cell research and opening up new avenues for funding.
In March, President Barack Obama lifted the restrictions on stem cell research set in place by the Bush administration. Obama then let the NIH create guidelines to determine ethical practices in embryonic stem cell research.
In April, the NIH posted a draft of guidelines online where the public could read and give feedback. The final draft takes into account comments written by more than 49,000 people — including scientists, religious organizations, members of Congress and citizens.
Sean Morrison, director of the University’s Center for Stem Cell Biology, wrote in a statement on the University’s website that the guidelines would help stem cell research progress at the University and other institutions in the United States.
“These revised NIH policies, which make many more embryonic stem cell lines available to federally funded scientists, will dramatically accelerate progress in this field,” Morrison wrote. “The National Institutes of Health should be commended for taking a leadership role that will make these advances possible.”
Sue O’Shea, director of the University’s Center for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research, said the new guidelines would make it easier for University researchers to use stem cell lines that have been created elsewhere in the country.
“The NIH has opened up the opportunity to use a number of more cell lines than we’ve had access to before,” she said. “Before, we were restricted to doing research on the presidential cell lines, (which) were old and not so easy to deal with.”
An embryonic stem cell line consists of stem cells taken from a human embryo. The cells have the ability to differentiate into various tissues. Researchers believe they can use stem cells to find cures for several diseases including Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The NIH guidelines state that embryos used for scientific studies can only be derived from in vitro fertilization treatments. The guidelines act in conjunction with Proposal 2 — passed in Michigan last November — which allow couples to donate their embryos for research as long as they sign written consent forms. Before the passage of Proposal 2, extra embryos from fertility treatments were automatically thrown away.
With more stem cell lines available, the NIH will create a registry with a list of approved stem cell lines so scientists know which ones they are allowed to use for research purposes.
“Without such a registry, individual research institutions would have struggled to decide for themselves which cell lines abide by the NIH policy,” Morrison wrote. “Now, everyone can work from a common list that can be updated centrally.”
Before Obama overturned Bush’s stem cell policy, scientists could only use the 22 lines listed in the registry and could not derive new lines.
O’Shea said Bush’s policy was a “conservative approach to pleasing lots of sides to the argument.”
“Now what Obama said is that we can use all the cell lines that have been developed with the proper consent and the proper ethical restraints in place,” she said.
Scientists who wish to derive new stem cell lines not listed in the registry will have to have their lines reviewed by the NIH, which will determine whether or not the lines were derived in an ethical manner.
O’Shea said this policy will save the University’s Human Pluripotent Stem Cell Research Oversight Committee — which oversees ethical issues related to stem cell research — from having to make similar decisions.
“And that’s great,” she said. “We don’t want this responsibility.”
University researchers say their one concern with the new guidelines is that stem cell lines approved by Bush will have to be re-reviewed by the NIH to ensure they meet the new standards.
“If they don’t, then people who have developed a lot of data with those lines will be left wondering where they stand and how much of that data they can use,” O’Shea said.
Morrison wrote that he believes current stem cell lines will adhere to the new guidelines.
“I expect that most existing lines will be found to have been ethically derived according to the core principles described in the NIH policy,” Morrison wrote. “This will eventually make hundreds of new stem cell lines available for use by NIH-funded scientists.”
Before NIH implemented the new guidelines, University stem cell researchers could only receive funding from private donors. Now, University researchers can use money from the NIH.
O’Shea said these funds will help her pursue research on a stem cell line that carries the mutation for Huntington’s Disease. Before, she could only accept money from donors to carry out the study.
“Now we’ll be able to get lines from embryos that carry genetic diseases, and we’ll be able to use those NIH funds for research, so that’s going to help a lot,” she said.