International developments in stem cell research and funding

26 January 2009

Controversy continues in the US over stem-cell research, and in particular the use of human embryos to create stem cell lines. New president Barack Obama has previously said he will rescind a previous directive imposed by former president George Bush, which drastically limits federal funding for stem cell research; Bush also used his presidential veto to block moves by the US government to ease these restrictions (see previous news). Obama has also called on Congress to introduce legislation lifting current restrictions, as an alternative to making an executive order to achieve this (see Yahoo news).

In the UK, the Independent newspaper has reported that two of the three current holders of Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) licences permitting research involving the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos (see previous news) have been denied research funds needed to continue the work” (see Independent article). The piece suggests that the decision not to fund projects by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) may have been due to moral objections to the work by members of the relevant funding committees. However, the MRC has refuted this allegation with a statement from Chief Executive Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, who said: “The suggestion made in the Independent that stem cell research is under threat or that funding has halted is erroneous and misleading. Stem cell research holds great promise and is receiving more funding than ever before from the Medical Research Council”, adding that the system used for decisions on which research proposals received funding could not be influences by a personal moral view (see MRC statement).

While argument continues on both sides of the Atlantic, some new stem cell therapeutics are entering clinical trials. In Scotland recently, two new small-scale trials have been reported; stem cells derived from dead adult donors are to be used as a potential new therapy for corneal blindness (see BBC news), and another trial will assess the suitability of stem cells as a potential treatment for stroke in patients who have not responded well to conventional therapy (see BBC news). The UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has given permission for this Reneuron trial to proceed (see press release), although the company has faced opposition to its use of stem cells derived from human embryos. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has previously withheld consent to Reneuron stem cell therapy trials, but recently gave clearance for what has been claimed to be “the world’s first human clinical trial of embryonic stem cell-based therapy” for acute spinal cord injury (see press release).

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