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Limited Federal Funds for Stem Cell Work Using Donated Embryos

By Ceci Connolly

The Obama administration today is announcing guidelines for government-sponsored embryonic stem cell research but the draft regulations would limit federal funding of work on human embryos donated at fertility clinics.

The guidelines being issued by the National Institutes of Health open the door for a vast expansion of the research, but stop short of allowing scientists to create human embryos for research purposes or pursuing cloning techniques.

Administration officials took the more conservative approach largely for political reasons, rather than any particular scientific concern.

Among the public, "there is broad support for the use of federal funds on cells derived" from embryos that would otherwise be discarded by fertility clinics, said Raynard Kington, acting director of the NIH. "There is not similar broad support for using stem cells from other sources."

The new regulations, which will be finalized in July, are the result of President Obama's decision last month to lift Bush-era restrictions that had limited federal research to a couple dozen embryonic stem cells lines. With the new policy, taxpayer money will be invested in perhaps hundreds of embryonic stem cell lines that had been off-limits for the past eight years.

Researchers have long touted the potential of embryonic stem cells in treating an array of illnesses because of their unique ability to morph into any tissue in the body. Scientists say the stem cells could eventually lead to therapies for Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injuries and diabetes.

"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," according to the draft guidelines. "Stem cells, directed to differentiate into specific cell types, offer the possibility of a renewable source of replacement cells."

Because extracting the stem cells involves destroying the days-old embryos, some religious leaders and ethicists have objected to the research. They also argue that work on embryonic stem cells is no longer necessary because of advances on adult stem cells.

Many scientists, however, say it remains unclear whether the adult cells will have the same transformative capabilities as the embryonic cells.

Federal law prohibits the use of taxpayer money to create or destroy human embryos. But it is legal to use private money for those purposes.

Last year, the NIH gave out $88 million in grants for 260 projects involving the 21 cell lines allowed under the Bush policy, Kington said. For this year, the institute had approved 20 projects that met the Bush criteria. Those researchers will be given a chance to modify their proposals to meet the new guidelines, which will be posted on the NIH Web site later today.

Kington expects many new applications.

"This will be a great expansion of the opportunities because of the many more lines we'll be able to use," he said this morning. "This will ultimately have a significant impact on human health and disease."

Scientists caution that the process from lab to treatment could take years.

The guidelines, which will be open for a 30-day public comment period, also detail how scientists must secure written consent from embryo donors. Broadly speaking, donation is only permitted if made voluntarily, without pressure or financial inducement. Most often, the stem cells come from couples that are satisfied with their family size and do not have a need for the remaining embryos. In the past, most of those embryos are destroyed since the donors do not want another person to raise their biological child.

It is possible to expand the policy in the future, Kington added, stressing that the actions by the Obama administration are a significant shift from the far more restrictive policy in place throughout the Bush administration.

Under the Bush policy, NIH officials "felt science was being slowed by the limited number of cell lines," Kington said. "This is a huge boost for the science in this area."

Source Date: Apr 17 2009
Source Publication: Washington Post
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