Stem Cell Gamble?

The Obama administration issued new NIH guidelines for Human Stem Cell research after scientists had complained about restrictive and extensive consenting proposed for fertilized egg donation.  The head of the NIH, Dr. Raynard Kington, said researchers would be able to use federal funds for some stem cell lines that were previously banned under Bush administration rules.

Many scientific groups welcomed the new rules as a step in the right direction, away from politically-driven policy and toward science-based policy.  The rules permit federally funded research on surplus fertilized eggs from in vitro fertilization clinics, embryos that would have been destroyed.

But some complain the new rules still fall short of “decisions based on facts, not ideology” as President Obama promised on March 9, 2009.

Continuing a ban on embryonic stem cell lines derived from other proven techniques “is a terrible disappointment,” says Stanford University School of Medicine stem cell researcher Dr. Irving Weissman.  He says transferring genetic material from a patient to egg, through somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) has shown promise in many animals including primates, and the failure to include those cell lines for future research restricts important work.

Some who oppose human embryonic stem cell research say advances in adult stem cell research make ethical problems obsolete.  Not so fast, say Weissman and others.  So-called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells have caused cancer in lab animals, when genes used to reprogram the cells continue to be active.

The International Society for Stem Cell Research is urging the NIH to allow federal funding for both iPS and SCNT-derived human embryonic stem cells.  The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine says it is also working with the NIH to include broader sources of stem cells, consistent with ethical and professional standards.

“The NIH is gambling,” says Weissman, that adult stem cells and IVF-derived stem cells will be enough.  He says discouraging ethical scientific research on human stem cell sources continues a policy dictated by polls not by science.

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