In a long-awaited move, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) today announced that, as of Friday, researchers can apply for federal funding for research on human pluripotent stem cells. The cells can become any tissue in the body, and researchers hope they might be used to treat diseases such as diabetes or Parkinson's. The decision is highly controversial because antiabortion groups strongly object to research on these cells, which are derived from human embryos or fetal tissue.
Federal law prohibits NIH from funding research that harms or destroys a human embryo. But in January 1999 a lawyer for the Department of Health and Human Services ruled that research on stem cell lines--derived from embryos or fetal tissue by privately funded scientists--could be eligible for public funding. No scientists were allowed to apply for funding, however, until NIH finalized its guidelines.
The guidelines released today spell out the ethical requirements for scientists who hope to work with such cells. Among other conditions, cell lines must be derived from embryos left over from fertility treatments, which would otherwise be discarded. Scientists who want NIH funding for stem cell research will need to submit their plans to a committee of scientists and ethicists for initial approval before the application can be considered for peer review.
Scientific groups have praised the final guidelines. "They will certainly allow federally funded scientists to do the work that they want to do," says Timothy Leshan, director of public policy for the American Society for Cell Biology. According to the Associated Press, President Clinton also expressed his approval this morning. At an unrelated press briefing, Clinton said the research had "potentially staggering benefits." He acknowledged the controversy, but said the guidelines had been developed after "rigorous scientific review."
It is not yet clear whether existing stem cell lines will qualify for federal funding. In anticipation of the final guidelines, the University of Wisconsin, Madison, set up the privately funded WiCell Research Institute to facilitate distribution of the cell lines derived by Wisconsin researcher James Thomson (Science, 11 February, p. 948). Thomson, who was the first to derive pluripotent stem cells from human embryos, says he and WiCell will petition the NIH for approval to fund work with their five existing cell lines. If approval is denied, he says, WiCell will derive new lines in accordance with the guidelines, a process that could take several months.
Lana Skirboll, associate director for science policy at NIH, says the review committee will carefully consider applications for use of existing cell lines, most likely at its first meeting. The NIH is currently recruiting panel members, but she says the group will likely meet by December. Scientists could receive funding as early as next January.