By Rob Stein
Wednesday, April 28, 2010; A19
The National Institutes of Health announced Tuesday that 13 additional lines of human embryonic stem cells are eligible for federal funding, including the most widely used line.
The NIH's approval of the lines should alleviate mounting concerns among some supporters of stem cell research that the Obama administration was hindering the work.
"Many people who had been working on these lines, and concerned about whether they would be able to continue to work with these lines, will now be reassured that their research can now go forward," NIH Director Francis S. Collins said Tuesday.
"This is fantastic news," said Charles Murry, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. His stem cell research had been in limbo, awaiting government approval of one of the lines. "Students who were facing the prospects of having to repeat years of work with new lines will now be able to complete their projects as planned. . . . It is a good day for science."
The federal approval includes nine lines that had never before been eligible for federal funding and four long-used lines derived by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, known as H7, H9, H13 and H14. H9 is the most widely used.
"It's a big day for researchers in the United States," said Erik Forsberg, executive director of the WiCell Research Institute in Madison, Wis., which applied for the approval. "The fact that these lines will now be listed on the registry and available for research will ease the mind of many scientists."
"It's an important step forward," said Lisa Hughes, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research. "This is great news, too, for those in the patient community who continue to wait for better treatments and cures."
Soon after taking office, President Obama announced that he was lifting his predecessor's restrictions on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research. But more than a year after that announcement, some scientists complained that the new policy had, ironically, been more of a burden than a boon to their work.
At issue was the fate of stem cell lines that President George W. Bush said could qualify for federal research dollars. Bush limited federal funding to those lines in existence in 2001, to prevent taxpayer dollars from encouraging the destruction of more embryos to create additional lines. Critics of the research praised Bush's move, saying that destroying embryos to advance academic study is immoral. But many scientists condemned the restrictions, saying they were hindering research that could lead to cures for Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, paralysis and other ailments.
Obama's attempt to loosen the funding restrictions was complicated by a thicket of ethical issues. Last summer, the NIH issued detailed guidelines aimed at addressing the concerns. They included stringent requirements that any lines being studied with the help of federal funding meet strict new ethical criteria, including ensuring that couples who donated embryos were fully informed of other options.
However, it remained unclear how many of the original 21 lines were derived at a time when ethical requirements were less specific. That left in doubt how many would pass muster under the new guidelines.
With the new approval of H7 and H9, and with prior approval of earlier lines, stem cell lines responsible for 89 percent of scientific publications from 1999 to 2008 are now approved under the new guidelines, Collins said.
"That should provide a lot of reassurance to the research community," he said.