By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 22, 2010; A17
The National Institutes of Health rejected Monday a request to approve dozens of colonies of human embryonic stem cells for use by federally funded researchers. Scientists had been hoping the lines would become available for their research under a new policy from the Obama administration.
But NIH Director Francis Collins agreed with a group of experts gathered by NIH that use of the stem cell lines violated strict new ethical guidelines.
The availability of the lines, which were created by the private infertility clinic Reproductive Genetics Institute in Chicago, had been eagerly awaited because they carry mutations for a wide variety of diseases, including cystic fibrosis, Huntington's disease and muscular dystrophy. Scientists hope studying them will yield a wealth of information about those and other diseases, leading to new treatments.
The lines had been obtained from embryos donated by couples who were undergoing treatment for infertility and had decided not to use them because tests showed the embryos carried genetic defects.
But the advisory panel found that consent forms permitting use of the embryos contained unusually broad language and those who signed the forms gave up all rights to sue the clinic for any reason.
"The NIH guidelines for reviewing stem cell lines for federal funding were set up to adhere rigorously to the well-established norms for informed consent," Collins said in a statement. "It was frankly rather painful for my expert advisory committee to recommend against approval of 47 additional lines from RGI because of a consent problem, but rigorous guidelines are only meaningful if they are rigorously applied."
The decision means that only researchers with private funding will be able to continue working on the lines.
"We are the only institution that has established this unique resource for the world," said Anver Kuliev, the institute's director of research. "Much more progress might occur . . . if they were approved by the NIH."
Collins did approve eight other new lines, bringing to 75 the total number of lines now eligible for federal funding.
As president, George W. Bush had restricted federal funding to 21 lines of cells that were already in existence in 2001 to prevent taxpayer dollars from encouraging the destruction of more embryos to create additional lines.
Critics of human embryonic stem cell 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.
Soon after taking office, President Obama announced that he was lifting his predecessor's restrictions. But some scientists have complained that the new policy remained too restrictive because of the NIH's strict new ethical guidelines, which among other things were designed to make sure couples were advised of other options.