More than a year after Michigan voters passed an amendment allowing embryonic stem cell lines to be created in the state, University scientists have finally received approval to accept donated embryos — a necessary step for researchers to begin developing stem cell lines.

With the recent go-ahead from two University oversight boards, University researchers will be able to use the donated embryos to start the first major stem cell research project since the passage of a statewide proposal last November that reduced restrictions on stem cell research in Michigan. Through the project, researchers will use donated embryos to create the University’s first human embryonic stem cell lines.

Eva Feldman, director of the Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute, announced the approval yesterday during a speech to the Detroit Economic Club.

Proposal 2, a ballot initiative passed by state voters in November 2008, allows researchers to derive embryonic stem cell lines from donated embryos.

But without the approval from the University’s Human Pluripotent Stem Cell Research Oversight Committee and the Medical School’s Institutional Review Board — announced yesterday — researchers couldn’t move forward with their plan to create a human stem cell line.

The project was approved on Nov. 11, according to a University press release.

“Before today, we didn’t have all of the approvals (from the Institutional Review Board),” Sue O’Shea, director of the University’s Center for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Biology, said in an interview yesterday. “Today we’ve finally cleared all the hurdles.”

The University’s Consortium for Stem Cell Therapies — an organization that brings together researchers from across campus and from Michigan State University and Wayne State University — will be responsible for deriving the stem cell lines.

The consortium is now able to accept donated embryos that were created for reproductive purposes but were discarded either because they weren’t needed anymore or they couldn’t be used, according to the release. The consent of the donor must be documented in writing before the stem cells can be turned over to the consortium, in accordance with federal and state laws.

Two million dollars of funding for the new research will come from two private organizations, the Alfred A. Taubman Medical Research Institute and the Consortium for Stem Cell Therapies.

A current federal law states that taxpayer dollars, including those from the National Institutes of Health, cannot be used to develop new stem cell lines. Once lines are developed, however, government funding can be used to cover the research.

According to the release, University researchers expect to create their first embryonic stem cell line by 2010.

In addition to deriving embryonic lines, consortium scientists will also work on techniques to convert adult skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells, which function like embryonic cells, making them extremely valuable for research purposes.

According to O’Shea, the recent approval allows University scientists to begin this groundbreaking research.

“It’s tremendously important,” O’Shea said. “For one, the existing stem cell lines out there don’t represent the world’s population so now we have the tools to let us make more genetically diverse lines.”

With the approval, consortium scientists can also begin the process of creating stem cell lines from disease-carrying patients, which will help them develop treatments for a variety of diseases.

“We want to obtain cells from diabetics or people with Parkinson’s because once there’s an embryonic stem cell line, we have thousands of cells and we can try different treatments, so we can study disease progression along with new medications,” O’Shea said.

Although the loosening of the research restrictions was approved last year, groundwork for this project began long before the votes were cast.

“We’ve been working on this project for several years — even before Proposal 2 was on the ballot,” O’Shea said. “We couldn’t do any of the work we’re doing if Proposal 2 had failed because it was illegal to make new lines in the state of Michigan.”

Feldman said researchers will start collecting embryos at the beginning of the new year and will progressively increase their intake of donors’ embryos.

“We need to understand and become efficient with making lines before I can say we can make 30 or 40 lines,” Feldman said. “We’ll start in a very measured way to make sure we have all the operating procedures worked out correctly.”

According to Feldman, in the past year, many potential donors have expressed interest in donating their embryos for research.

“We estimate we will receive between 40 and 200 donors over the first year or so. We will begin by accepting embryos from donors where we expect the embryos to be normal so we can develop initial lines,” she said.

Though the state constitutional amendment passed last year, there is still some opposition to stem cell research in the state. A group of state legislators, led by Sen. Tom George (R—Kalamazoo), will present bills to the Senate Health Policy Committee today that could restrict the state’s stem cell research.

“It would certainly hinder our project in a big way,” O’Shea said. “It’s just an attempt to further regulate stem cell research. It will impede our recruiting efforts and make it harder for us.”

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