Obama reverses stem cell funding restrictions

U researchers say change will speed research and aid collaboration.

With MondayâÄôs executive order, President Barack Obama signed away more than seven years of restrictions on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research, a topic that has incited contentious debate about where human life begins and what it means to respect it. A Bush administration policy had limited federal funding to research on stem cell lines created prior to Aug. 9th, 2001. Researchers, including some at the University of Minnesota, were able to work with stem cells derived after that date using private funds. But this order will remove some of the hassles associated with such research, like having to raise private funds and use separate equipment for federally and non-federally funded research. However, one federal funding restriction not reversed by the order is the 1996 Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which prevents federal funds from being used to destroy human embryos. This will still prevent researchers from using federal money to create new stem cell lines, University Stem Cell Institute Director Jonathan Slack said. Embryonic stem cell lines are derived from donated embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization. Those stem cell lines must still be created using private funds âÄî but once those lines are created, federal funding can now be used to research them, Slack said. At the University, Slack said the order will impact researchers by expanding the range of cell lines theyâÄôre able to use. Those eligible for federal funding are few and aging, he said. By being able to work with the full range of embryonic cell lines created since 2001, researchers can speed up their work. The other main effect, he said, will be a reduction of the red-tape and bureaucracy associated with researching non-federally fundable cell lines. Researchers working with both types of cell lines required duplicate equipment and facilities, he said, which led to complicated equipment and time-consuming debate about how different pieces of lab equipment should be used. Meri Firpo , an assistant professor in the Stem Cell Institute whose research focuses on diabetes, has been working with cell lines created both before and after BushâÄôs August 2001 edict. Access to federal funding will help quicken her research, she said, as a major limitation came from trying to raise the money to do the work. Some of her collaborators, Firpo said, who work on conditions like HuntingtonâÄôs disease and Down syndrome , will now be able to research new stem cell lines in their own labs instead of having to use hers, which will move research forward more quickly, she said. But with the Dickey-Wicker Amendment (its fate depends on congressional action), her lab will still have to use separate salaries, supplies and facilities to create new embryonic stem cell lines, and will continue to rely on private funds for that work, she said. Public and nonprofit management junior Matt Hanzlik is the president of the University chapter of the Student Society for Stem Cell Research . He said ObamaâÄôs order is important both for himself personally and the nation. One of his parents was diagnosed with ParkinsonâÄôs disease when he was a high school student, he said, and he sees the potential stem cell research may have for treating or curing it. Hanzlik said he also sees the research as a boon to society, as it has the potential to cure disease rather than just apply expensive treatments. He said it will be important for the National Institutes of Health to maintain ethical guidelines that ensure embryos in the U.S. are never created expressly for research nor are donors ever compensated for them. But some, including nursing sophomore and Students for Life secretary Leona Jovanovich , have reservations about the reversal. Jovanovich said she disagrees with killing embryos and doesnâÄôt know why the government would expand funding when researchers have found promise in adult stem cells, including a way to reprogram them to act like embryonic cells. Indeed, over the past few years, researchers been working on transforming ordinary skin cells into what are, in effect, embryonic stem cells, Stem Cell Institute Director Slack said. So ultimately, it is likely that demand for embryonic stem cells will decrease due to this new technology. But for now, embryonic stem cells are still important. They represent the âÄúgold standardâÄù of pluripotency, the ability of a cell to turn into any of the bodyâÄôs other cell types, he said. To fully understand and use these adult-turned-embryonic stem cells, more work with human embryonic cells is needed. Dr. Steven Miles, professor of medicine and bioethics, said embryonic stem cell research is a fundamental technology that is being developed primarily overseas. That puts the rights to the technologies that underlie future therapies out of our hands, he said, and that makes this country a less desirable place for leading technological companies. Opponents of this research cite the idea that embryos represent human life, so destroying them is tantamount to killing, Miles said, and that opening up the line of research could lead to things like experimenting with fetuses to create clones. Science must be regulated by public policy, he said, âÄúbut you donâÄôt shut down a whole line of science because of the bad implications.âÄù