Two Big Boosts For Stem Cell Research: NIH Approves New Lines, Director Presents Moral Case For the Use of Embryonic Stem Cells

It’s time for a stem-cell fist bump. Nine months after President Obama issued his executive order overturning Bush-era barriers to embryonic stem cell research, the NIH has approved 13 new human embryonic stem-cell lines for federally funded research.  More than 20 additional lines will be considered for approval at the end of this week and dozens more are on the runway for review. NIH director Dr. Francis Collins called the move “a real change in the landscape.”

Despite charges to the contrary, scientists are still very interested in human embryonic stem cells. Critics of the research have argued loudly that these cells, which require the destruction of human embryos, are no longer relevant now that researchers have successfully created induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells, out of genetically reprogrammed adult cells. Translation: embryonic-like cells without the embryos. This summer, Chinese researchers moved the iPS field forward when they announced that they had bred mice out of animal iPS cells. "Nobody has been able to find anything that embryonic stem cells can do that these cells can't do," Richard M. Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Washington Post in response to the news in July. "This was the last remaining barrier."

Stem cells, passé? Try telling that to scientists like Harvard’s Dr. George Daley, director of the Stem Cell Transplantation Program at Children’s Hospital Boston, who created 11 of the 13 lines approved by the NIH this week. “There’s enormous excitement and enthusiasm for studying iPS cells,” says Daley, who is working with these cells in his lab. “But as of today, human embryonic stem cells represent the gold standard.” Major questions still need to be resolved: are iPS cells and embryonic stem cells equivalent? The two cells may look alike and share similar properties, but will they behave the same way? Scientists say they won’t know for sure until they do extensive research comparing them head to head. Daley and colleagues recently reported that they had found a difference between the two in an area called methylation, a kind of DNA modification. “We don’t know yet how important that is functionally,” he says, “but there’s clear evidence emerging that any given iPS cell may be quite different from a human embryonic stem cell.”

The moral take on human embryonic stem cells isn’t clear-cut either. Religious groups vary in their viewpoints, from supporting research as long as it’s for medical or therapeutic purposes (Judaism) to opposing it outright because it destroys embryos (Roman Catholicism). Many pro-life advocates are against it; others believe it should go forward if it can save a life. All of this came to the fore this week when Collins, an evangelical Christian, said even people who believe in the inherent sanctity of the human embryo can ethically support research on embryos that would otherwise be discarded. “Many people who’ve looked at this have come to that conclusion, including me,” he said in the conference call with reporters. Then he plugged a book, Sacred Cells? Why Christians Should Support Stem Cell Research, written by three Christian scholars. Any argument where there’s a necessary collision between theological perspectives and scientific ones, “is unnecessarily contentious,” he said. Nobody, Collins included, will silence those who stand firmly by their convictions. But with the government now advancing—and paying for—embryonic stem cell research, science is pulling ahead of the opposition.

What’s not contentious is that stem-cell scientists are eager to get their hands on the new lines. Already, the NIH has approved 31 embryonic stem cell research projects totaling about $21 million. As of this week, those studies—which include research into regenerating heart muscle and producing neural stem cells to treat diseases like Parkinson’s—can move forward. More projects are up for a second round of review early next year.

Stem-cell research isn’t easy and it isn’t cheap. Daley says it takes about four to six months to develop a single line and he estimates the cost at about $10,000—and that’s just for materials and supplies. The NIH approvals won’t resolve every financial hurdle. Scientists who want to study human embryos to learn more about infertility, genetic anomalies, and early developmental problems that can lead to birth defects cannot use federal funds to do so. The government won’t fund the development of new embryonic stem cell lines, either. Still, this week’s big 13 is a coup after a decade of frustration. The scientific community is “breathing a huge sigh of relief,” says Collins. “They’re ready to go.”

Claudia Kalb is a senior writer for NEWSWEEK.