Tuesday, July 7, 2009

U.S. stem cell funding rules finalized

U.S. stem cell funding rules finalized
Last Updated: Tuesday, July 7, 2009 | 8:54 AM ET Comments4Recommend3
The Associated Press
New rules unveiled Monday allows for research on older stem cell lines to qualify for U.S. government funding.New rules unveiled Monday allows for research on older stem cell lines to qualify for U.S. government funding. (Paul Sancya/Associated Press)

The U.S. government issued final rules Monday expanding taxpayer-funded research using embryonic stem cells and easing scientists' fears that some of the oldest batches might not qualify.

The administration under former president George W. Bush had limited taxpayer-funded research to a small number of stem cell batches, or lines, already in existence as of August 2001.

Current President Barack Obama lifted that restriction in March, potentially widening the field — there now may be as many as 700 stem cell lines around the world — but letting the National Institutes of Health set its boundaries.

But the final rules issued Monday settle a big question: Would new ethics requirements disqualify many of the stem cells created over the past decade, even the few funded under the Bush administration's tight limits?

The NIH came up with a compromise, saying it deems those old stem cell lines eligible for government research dollars if scientists can prove they met the spirit of the new ethics standards. Further, NIH will create a registry of qualified stem cells so scientists don't have to second-guess if they're applying to use the right ones.
'A reasonable compromise'

"We think this is a reasonable compromise to achieve the president's goal of both advancing science while maintaining rigorous ethical standards," acting NIH director Raynard Kington said Monday. "We believe that judgment is necessary."

He wouldn't speculate on how many old stem cells ultimately would qualify, but scientists welcomed the change.

"I expect that most existing lines will be found to have been ethically derived," said Dr. Sean Morrison, director of the University of Michigan Center for Stem Cell Biology. "This will eventually make hundreds of new stem cell lines available for use."

Researchers hope that embryonic stem cells — master cells that can morph into any cell of the body — can be harnessed to one day create better treatments, maybe even cures, for ailments ranging from diabetes to Parkinson's to spinal cord injury.

Culling those stem cells destroys a days-old embryo, something many strongly oppose on moral grounds. Once created, those cells can propagate indefinitely in lab dishes.

Federal law forbids using taxpayer money to create or destroy an embryo. At issue here are rules for working with cells that initially were created using private money.

NIH sifted through 49,000 comments from the public in finalizing the rules, which take effect Tuesday. The draft changed little, as stem cells created solely for research in whatever manner, including cloning, won't qualify.

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