Catalyst - Summer 2009 - Moving Science Forward: Rescinded Stem Cell Funding Ban a Huge Step

Catalyst Summer 2009

The ban placed on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research by President George Bush almost eight years ago took a major, though perhaps not completely evident, toll on the field of stem cell research.

"Coming at a time of great promise, the ban resulted in the loss of a whole generation of young scientists who embraced embryonic stem cell research as a worthwhile path of discovery, but saw no future for it in the United States. Thus, while countries in Europe moved forward with embryonic stem cell research, efforts to advance knowledge of its benefits in our nation's laboratories were forced to be put on hold," said Michael F. Christman, Ph.D., president and chief executive officer of the Coriell Institute for Medical Research in Camden, N.J.

The consequences of these limitations were "devastating," he added, "severely delaying the potential clinical impact on what could be very promising therapeutic areas."

Thanks to President Barack Obama's March 9 executive order removing the Bush administration's restrictions on the federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research, stem cell technology is now poised to enter the medical mainstream.

Obama's executive order left the precise details of how stem cell research will be funded up to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). At present, the agency's draft guidelines permit the funding of research with stem cell lines derived from embryos created but not used for fertility purposes. The Executive Order states that the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, through the director of NIH, "may support and conduct responsible, scientifically worthy human stem cell research, including human embryonic stem cell research, to the extent permitted by law."

"Now that funding has been reinstated, the comeback process will be a gradual one, as we have seen a dismantling of the infrastructure of personnel used to conduct embryonic research in the United States," said Coriell's Dr. Christman.

Human embryonic stem cells are cells that are derived from human embryos, are capable of dividing without differentiating for a prolonged period in culture, and are known to develop into cells and tissues of the three primary germ layers. Although human embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos, such stem cells are not themselves human embryos.

Studies of human embryonic stem cells may yield information about the complex events that occur during human development. Some of the most serious medical conditions, such as cancer and birth defects, are due to abnormal cell division and differentiation. A better understanding of the genetic and molecular controls of these processes could provide information about how such diseases arise and suggest new strategies for therapy, according to scientists. Human embryonic stem cells may also be used to test new drugs.

Perhaps the most important potential use of human embryonic stem cells is the generation of cells and tissues that could be used for cellbased therapies. (See related articles in this issue of Catalyst for some fascinating examples of the way this technology is being used.)

Today, donated tissues and organs are often used to replace ailing or destroyed tissue, but the need for transplantable tissues and organs far outweighs the available supply. Stem cells, directed to differentiate into specific cell types, offer the possibility of a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat diseases and conditions, including Parkinson's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, spinal cord injury, burns, heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis.

These draft guidelines would allow funding for research using only those human embryonic stem cells that were derived from embryos created by in vitro fertilization (IVF) for reproductive purposes and were no longer needed for that purpose. Funding will continue to be allowed for human stem cell research using adult stem cells and induced Pluripotent Stem cells (iPS). These cells are artificially derived from a non-pluripotent cell, typically an adult somatic cell, by inducing a "forced" expression of certain genes. Induced Pluripotent Stem cells are believed to be identical to natural pluripotent stem cells, such as embryonic stem cells in many respects.

President Obama's recent rescinding of the ban on federal funding marked a great day in the field of stem cell research, according to Dr. Christman – "a long-overdue turning point that could mean many things for the future of therapeutic advancement."

Although the Coriell Institute has no plans to directly pursue embryonic stem cell research – it is currently working in the area of iPS -- Dr. Christman said he applauds the federal government for restoring its funding. "The government is a major source of funding for scientific research, and stem cell research – including embryonic stem cell research – is an important avenue toward understanding degenerative diseases and, ultimately, improving the health of humankind."


EisnerAmper's Catalyst: Summer 2009

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