Thirteen stem cell lines have been added to the pool that scientists can use for taxpayer-funded research, and many more such lines will soon be made available, US health officials announced Wednesday.
These are the first additional embryonic stem cell lines approved for research funded by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) since President Barack Obama last spring lifted restrictions on stem cell research that were imposed eight years ago by then-President George W. Bush.
"With these [lines] now becoming available for federally funded researchers, we believe it will speed up the process of investigating ways in which this remarkable new area of developmental biology can be explored," NIH director Dr Francis S. Collins said.
"The field has been waiting with bated breath for this announcement," one expert, Dr George Daley of Children's Hospital Boston, told the Associated Press. Eleven of the 13 stem cell lines approved Wednesday were developed at Children's, Collins noted, while the other two come from Rockefeller University in New York City.
New lines privately funds
Collins noted that over the past eight years, hundreds of embryonic stem cell lines have been created using private funds. "Many of them with more favourable characteristics for research purposes than the original ones approved by President Bush," he said.
Citing ethical issues, the Bush administration had limited federally funded research to about 21 stem cell lines already in existence in August 2001. That decision ignited a firestorm of controversy between those who advocated that human embryos should not be tampered with and those who viewed stem cell research as a potential pathway to curing a host of diseases.
Currently, 96 more human embryonic stem cell lines are under review to see if they meet the criteria for NIH-funded research, Collins said. Only one of the Bush-approved stem cell lines is among the 96 under consideration.
Recommendations to approve or reject 20 of these lines is expected on Friday, the NIH director said.
Ban on creating new lines
NIH policy still calls for new embryonic stem cell lines to be developed without taxpayer funding. "There is still a ban against the creation of new stem cell lines with federal funds," Collins stressed.
All the stem cell lines NIH is considering are derived from embryos left over from in vitro fertilisation. These embryos would have been discarded, but the donors gave permission for them to be used in research, Collins noted.
At present, 31 NIH research grants, worth $21 million, are on hold, awaiting approval of these stem cell lines. With the approval of the 13 lines, researchers can begin to look at these lines to see if they are appropriate for their projects, Collins said.
Those projects include efforts to grow heart muscle, neurological stem cells and neurons. Other research is focusing on ways to produce more stem cells so they can be available in greater quantities to researchers, he said.
Embryonic stem cells are thought to be especially useful to medical science because they can be manipulated to become any type of body cell. Scientists hope to use these cells to create replacement tissues to treat a variety of diseases, such as diabetes, Parkinson's, spinal cord injuries and Alzheimer's disease.
"It is exciting to be able to say that - after what has clearly been a time of some frustration on the part of the scientific community's inability to gain access with federal funds to cell lines that investigators wish to utilise - that is now changing," Collins said. - (HealthDay News, December 2009)