Advocates for research with human embryonic stem cells are worried by the latest twist in the cells' political story. Last week the National Institutes of Health (NIH) cancelled its planned meeting of the panel that is supposed to determine whether a given stem cell line was derived in accordance with NIH's ethical guidelines (ScienceNOW, 3 April). Because NIH can't fund projects until their cell lines have been approved by the panel, the cancellation delays indefinitely federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.
Embryonic stem cells have the potential to develop into any cell type in the body, and many scientists would like to discover how to use them to treat intractable diseases such as diabetes or Parkinson's disease. However, the work is controversial because the cells are derived from week-old human embryos. Although a clause in the law that funds NIH prevents the agency from funding research that would harm or destroy an embryo, a lawyer at the Department of Health and Human Services ruled in 1999 that because stem cells--which can grow ad infinitum in culture--are not themselves embryos, the NIH could fund work with cells that were derived by privately funded researchers or researchers overseas.
After George W. Bush was elected president, however, he asked the new Health and Human Services secretary, Tommy Thompson (who oversees NIH), to review the legality of that ruling. The department has been tight-lipped about its review process. A spokesperson would not name the participants, saying only that Thompson is drawing on "the appropriate legal and scientific expertise" to examine the current policy. He said the department has no timetable for finishing the review.
The NIH had scheduled the first meeting of the Human Pluripotent Stem Cell Review Group for 25 April, where the panel was to review at least one group of cells derived with private funds by Australian researchers Martin Pera and Alan Trounson and their colleagues. However, the meeting has been cancelled pending the review of stem cell guidelines, NIH said last week. "The [Health and Human Services] department told us inasmuch as they're conducting a review, it was premature for the review group to meet to assess compliance" with the guidelines, said NIH spokesperson Anne Thomas.
Some stem cell advocates worry that the move could signal the Bush Administration's intention to block NIH funding for the work. "I'm traditionally an optimist, but I don't take this as a very good sign," says Tim Leshan of the American Society of Cell Biology, which has been lobbying in favor of embryonic stem cell research.
Meanwhile, Senators Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced a bill on 5 April that would authorize NIH to fund derivation of and research on human embryonic stem cells. Two antiabortion senators have also signed on to the bill, Senators Strom Thurmond (R-South Carolina) and Gordon Smith (R-Oregon).