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Funding Stem Cell Research

NIH releases guidelines for funding embryonic stem cell research, which some researchers say are too restrictive

by Britt E. Erickson
April 27, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 17

Credit: Shutterstock
Human embryonic stem cell research will soon see more funding from NIH.
Credit: Shutterstock
Human embryonic stem cell research will soon see more funding from NIH.

The National Institutes of Health released draft guidelines on Friday that establish what human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research is eligible for federal funding. Under the guidelines, research on hESCs derived from leftover embryos created for reproductive purposes will now be eligible for federal support.

The guidelines, however, prohibit federal funding for work with cells made using a cloning technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) or an experimental procedure called parthenogenesis, in which stem cells are derived from only an unfertilized human egg. They also exclude funding of research on cells derived from embryos that were created solely for research purposes.

NIH was charged with developing the guidelines under an executive order signed by President Barack Obama in March, which lifted restrictions on federal funding of the derivation of and research on hESCs that were put in place by the Bush Administration (C&EN, March 16, page 7).

"NIH is now taking the first step in expanding funding of this important area of research," NIH Acting Director Raynard S. Kington, said during a telebriefing about the guidelines. "We think this will lead, in a relatively short period of time, to a greatly increased number of human embryonic stem cells eligible for federal funding," he added.

Kington would not speculate on how many additional hESC lines would be allowed under the new guidance, but he said there would likely be "many more" than the 20 some lines that were available under the Bush policy. These lines, which were developed before restrictions were put in place in August 2001, could end up being excluded under the new guidelines because of how they were derived. He noted that NIH consulted with the National Academy of Sciences and the International Society for Stem Cell Research to develop the guidelines.

Some scientists believe the draft guidelines are too restrictive, saying they will make it difficult to create disease-specific hESC lines. "As head of the National Academy of Sciences' panel that unanimously endorsed research using SCNT??? I know that this suggested ban on federal funding of SCNT-derived human embryonic stem cell lines is against our policies and against President Obama's March 9 comments," Irving L. Weissman, director of the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology & Regenerative Medicine, said in a statement.

Still others feel that the NIH recommendations are not conservative enough and will lead to the unnecessary destruction of many more embryos. Most people, however, say the guidelines are a prudent first step for a field that is fraught with controversy.

"Embryonic stem cell research is such an emotionally loaded subject, that there is no policy that you could have proposed that wouldn't irritate at least some people," says Thomas H. Murray, president of the Hastings Center, a bioethics research institution. "NIH's draft policy will please most Americans because it will greatly expand the number of cell lines that will now be eligible for research."

NIH will accept public comments on the guidelines for 30 days once they are published in the Federal Register later this week. Under Obama's executive order, NIH has until July 7 to finalize the guidelines.


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