Federally Funded Human Embryonic Stem Cells

Sep 5th, 2007 | By | Category: Embryonic Stem Cell Research

The University of Washington was selected by the NIH as one of two national centers for human embryonic stem cell research. The purse? Ten million dollars in federal funds spread over five years. Hurray for us!

(Full disclosure time: I was a small contributor to the grant, including preliminary data, experimental design and writing. The lab I work in will be receiving some of the funds. Writing this, I am the eponym for conflict of interest.)

Hearing the news, Eric Earling at Sound Politics noted:

And a reminder that despite the annoyingly simplistic campaign rhetoric one hears around election time, there actually is federally funded, embryonic stem cell research already occurring in the country.

Not so quick Eric. Added to the bottom of the press release is this defensive notice:

The source of human embryonic stem cells is limited to federally approved stem cell lines listed on the National Institutes of Health Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry.

Only lines created before August of 2001 may be studied with federal funds, as per the president and his infinite wisdom. Twenty-one are still around, and only ten are actually available for purchase right now. Federal research on human embryonic stem cells is limited the oldest lines, the lines where culture techniques were perfected, and the lines from a very limited genetic pool. (Fun fact: Three of the more popular lines (H1, H7 and H9) all started as embryos from the same in vitro fertilization clinic in Israel. How’s that for genetic diversity?)

What’s wrong with refusing to federally fund the creation of new embryonic stem cell lines? When government opens the purse, it gets to set rules. New lines are still being created (and pre-implantation embryos destroyed) — just with private dollars, behind closed doors and without any federal governmental oversight. For anyone seriously concerned about the ethical implications of this research, this is the worst possible outcome. Rather than a real national debate to hash out some reasonable rules and guidelines, we’ve simple swept the whole problem under the rug.

Solving some of what stops us from using human embryonic stem cells clinically — purifying out desired cell types from the differentiating population, delivering and integrating cells into target organs, avoiding grafting undesired or undifferentiated cells, protecting the genetic and epigenetic stability of the aged existing lines, and evading immune rejection — will require the creation of new embryonic stem cells. So long as the asinine Bush policy remains in place, we cannot forge a coherent and ethical means of doing so.