Watch the Fine Print on Stem Cells

Photo credit: University of Wisconsin-Madison Photo credit: University of Wisconsin-Madison

By Jeremy Manier

The Washington Post reported this afternoon that President Obama plans to lift the Bush-era restrictions on stem-cell research funding via executive order on Monday. Now comes the hard part – implementing a stem-cell policy that’s meaningful, has full ethical protections and unlocks the scientific talent that’s been held back the last eight years.

One insider point to watch on Monday is whether someone from the National Institutes of Health will help explain the new funding channels for this research. It’s a question of some urgency. Just this week, the NIH released a set of “challenge grant” topics that are eligible for a pool of $200 million as part of the new federal economic stimulus act. The NIH site describes the qualifying projects as those which “address specific scientific and health research challenges in biomedical and behavioral research that will benefit from significant 2-year jumpstart funds.” Embryonic stem-cell research would seem a natural fit – especially since the Bush administration held it back for years – but it’s not clear yet that Obama’s rule change has come in time for stem-cell grant seekers to get a share of the stimulus money. That’s one reason why Obama’s delay in announcing changes to the stem-cell policy was a bit puzzling. Many observers – including me – expected him to lift the restrictions his first week in office.

Around research centers like the University of Chicago, stem-cell scientists are poring over such details. I just spoke with John Cunningham, M.D., a specialist in pediatric stem-cell transplantation, who directed me to the brand-new NIH list of “Highest Priority Challenge Topics.” (You can see a more researcher-oriented application guide here.) Stem-cell research is on the list, but not specifically the embryonic stem-cell research that’s been subject to Bush’s limits. I count five topics that relate to iPS cells – short for induced pluripotent stem cells – which were discovered in 2007 and seem to have many of the properties of embryonic stem cells but are derived from adult cells. That’s fantastic because iPS cells deserve more study. But embryonic stem-cell research never appears by name, except to say that “iPS cells act like embryonic stem cells.”

This is an important point because as Cunningham said, “One of the things that lifting the current ban should allow us to do is really test whether iPS cells and embryonic stem cells have similar properties.” In theory the current challenge grant list could include work with embryonic stem cells, since some of the topics are broad enough to encompass work with several different cell types. For example, Topic 11, “Regenerative Medicine,” contains a broad opportunity to “Develop cell-based therapies for cardiovascular, lung, and blood diseases.” That could cover some work with embryonic stem cells, as could some of the items under the general category of stem cells.

But none of this is set in stone. What the president says on Monday may signal whether broader embryonic stem-cell funding will begin with the stimulus package, or whether scientists – and patients – will have to wait longer to start seeing more progress. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Here’s a take on the news in an e-mail from embryonic stem-cell researcher and friend of the blog George Q. Daley, M.D., of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and Children’s Hospital Boston: “I am brimful of hope and excitement about the announcement on Monday. I’ll be there, and I expect Obama to lift the restrictions and usher in a whole new era of scientific openness and opportunity for stem cell research. The future looks bright indeed for stem cell research.”

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