Turmoil as NIH halts human embryonic stem cell research

31 August 2010

Following the legal ban on the use of human embryonic stem (HES) cells by government-funded researchers (see previous news), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has reportedly instructed all scientists who use hESC lines to ‘initiate procedures to terminate these projects’ (see Washington Post). The researchers have been told that procedures to ‘conserve and protect the research resources’ (i.e. maintain the living cell lines, which would die without ongoing culturing) should be followed, but they are nevertheless expected to send descriptions of the research that has been suspended and – chillingly, for those hoping for a swift legal resolution and a resumption of research – how funds freed by this cessation may be used instead.
This move affects only those stem cell researchers working directly for the NIH – eight projects in all are affected. NIH-funded researchers at universities can continue their work, although they are probably all scrambling to find non-federal funding to secure the future of their projects, since all current funding applications and renewals have been suspended. There is also considerable confusion about what is not and is not permissible under the current injunction – for example, publication of findings from federally funded HES cell research.  International researchers who have US collaborators are also concerned about the impact on their joint projects (see The Australian).
Meanwhile the Obama administration is said to be lodging an appeal (see ABC news) and NIH Director Francis Collins has officially slammed the developments, citing the medical promise of HES research and saying The injunction threatens to stop progress in one of the most encouraging areas of biomedical research, just as scientists are gaining momentum—and squander the investment we have already made" (see NIH statement).
Research on stem cells derived from adult cells is not affected by the injunction, since it does not involve cells of embryonic origin. Scientists working in this field must be feeling very relieved compared with their HES cell counterparts. However, it has also been proposed that ongoing HES cell research is essential for the time-being,  if only as a comparator to demonstrate the efficacy of the more ethically-acceptable adult stem cell approaches.

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